Archive: Mar 2015

March 20. 2015

Monte Bute

At age 16, I stood outside my local high school and extended my left arm, displaying my middle finger in salute — I was dropping out. That act of defiance, coupled with a history of petty crime, led to my being sentenced me to a juvenile prison.

After graduating high school at the prison, the state paroled me early. While I was working in the Twin Cities at a couple of mind-numbing jobs, someone suggested to me the harebrained scheme of going to college.

I called up my father and told him of my latest delusion of grandeur. He was unimpressed; college was not on my family’s radar screen. I asked if I could temporarily live at home to earn some tuition money. He was skeptical: “Do you remember how badly things went when you last lived with us?”

Eventually, he relented. When I arrived home, there was only one job opening, and I soon discovered why. The job was at the local turkey factory. My job was to pull the live turkeys out of the delivery truck, lift them upside down and hang them eye-high by their feet as they went in on the conveyor belt for the kill.

I persevered, and within a couple of months I landed at Austin Junior College. Even for a longshot like me, it was a bet worth taking. They had open admissions, and tuition was the semester equivalent of $7.50 per credit hour. I had enough of a bankroll to pay tuition, rent a $7-a-week room and find a part-time job.

It was, at best, a mediocre school with maybe 250-300 students and 15 faculty members. Perhaps appropriately, the college occupied the third floor of the local high school.

Nonetheless, it was a college — something that had seemed unattainable just six months before.

Even here, I was badly overmatched. I always had a textbook balanced on one knee and a college dictionary draped over the other, as I navigated a rudimentary understanding of American and European history, literature, psychology, and humanities. At the end of my first term, I received a B- and two Cs. Truth be told, it was close to Christmas and those two C grades were gifts.

Despite that early lack of promise, I soon became the reclamation project of Rod Keller, an erudite sage with contrarian impulses. He saw in me a potential that had escaped the notice of my parents, my K-12 teachers and, most importantly, myself.

He prodded, he cajoled, and he flattered: after a couple of years, the liberal arts awoke me from my slumber. I came to realize that for my first 18 years, I had been little more than a sleepwalker: The lights had been on, but nobody was home.

Looking back, that junior college experience reminds me of the cataract surgery I had at age 60. Suddenly the gray, speckled fog that hung over the world metamorphosed into a brilliant, and almost blinding, array of vivid color.

After a long circuitous journey, I eventually became a professor at a public university. Today my students work far too many hours, usually at low wages, face conflicting family obligations, take more credits than they can handle and, given the hyper-inflation of tuition, end up with debt that seems as insurmountable as that of Greece.

A good share of these students fit Saul Alinsky’s social category of the “Have-a-Little, Want Mores.” Even though the odds are against them, most will get through and some will flourish. However, America also has millions of “Have-Nots.” Many in this lowest stratum will never get the chance for a post-secondary education.

Income inequality in the United States today is the greatest since 1928. Given that the “haves” dominate policy debates, legislation redistributing income is hardly possible today. The only politically feasible means of reducing inequality is making higher education more accessible and affordable. That said, the have-nots need skin in the game as well. Increased educational opportunity is meaningless unless the students are also all in.

Fifty years ago, I was hardly college material. Rock-bottom tuition rates gave me a chance to develop my aptitude. That was true for many in my generation. We made it because our government made an investment in us. In turn, we made significant personal investments in our own education. The dividends of that joint venture were substantial — both for ourselves and our communities.

We should do no less for our children and our children’s children. In America, higher education should not be limited to the more fortunate. We need to believe, once again, in the redemptive power of community colleges.

Monte Bute teaches sociology and social science at Metropolitan State University


Faculty, leaders end feud over MnSCU reform plan

  • Article by: MAURA LERNER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 3, 2015 – 4:43 PM

After a five-month standoff, faculty and administrators have agreed to settle their differences over a controversial plan called Charting the Future to reform Minnesota’s 31 state colleges and universities.

The two sides announced Tuesday that they “have agreed to move forward cooperatively and collaboratively” in a way that appears to give a bigger role to faculty and students on the planning teams.

Since October, two faculty unions have been in open revolt against Chancellor Steven Rosenstone over his handling of Charting the Future, a fledgling master plan that is supposed to modernize and streamline operations at the sprawling system with 410,000 students on 54 campuses.

Faculty critics had accused Rosenstone of ignoring their concerns that sweeping changes might harm the quality of education. Within a matter of weeks, the faculty groups at all seven Minnesota state universities passed no-confidence votes against the chancellor.

The feud had threatened to cost the system tens of millions in potential state funding, which it has been seeking to extend a tuition freeze. In January, Gov. Mark Dayton said he would not recommend any extra funds for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system (MnSCU) until the two sides made peace.

Last week, Dayton signaled that the dispute was nearing an end, and that he would restore some MnSCU funding in his upcoming budget.

In Tuesday’s announcement, MnSCU officials, trustees and faculty unions agreed to include “increased input” from faculty, staff and students in the planning process. The agreement also appears to shift some of the control away from central headquarters to the campuses, noting that Charting the Future “will become a campus-based regional process.”

Monte Bute, a union activist and sociology professor at Metro State University, described the agreement as a victory for the unions. “This is what we fought for for 17 months,” he said. “It literally is taking Charting the Future out from under Rosenstone and out of the central office.”

But Kim Olson, a spokeswoman for MnSCU, said it’s a merely a way to get more input from the campuses. “Although we’ve had that in the past, I think you’ll get even more,” she said. “We’re just all really pleased that we’re going to be working together and moving ahead.”

Resistance from the start

Rosenstone had launched the Charting the Future project in 2012, saying that MnSCU had to change with the times to better serve students and help them graduate with less debt.

But the plan has run into resistance from the start. A first draft, in 2013, was blasted by the Inter Faculty Organization — which represents the state universities’ instructors — as a blueprint for “Soviet-style” central control of the campuses.

Last October, both of MnSCU’s faculty unions announced that their members would no longer participate in Charting the Future because they had lost trust in Rosenstone.

The dispute was fueled, in part, by the discovery that Rosenstone’s administration had quietly paid a private consulting firm, McKinsey & Co., $2 million to help jump-start Charting the Future. Faculty leaders complained that McKinsey was promoting a corporate mentality that would threaten the quality of education and cut programs and staff.

Rosenstone has said that McKinsey is no longer involved, and that he is seeking recommendations from a wide range of faculty, staff and students.

Some of the proposals floated so far would allow students to get credit for prior knowledge and experience, and to transfer among campuses more easily. Rosenstone has said that some programs or campuses could be consolidated, but that no decisions have been made.