Recently, University of Minnesota students got a friendly email from Vice Provost Tom Sullivan. His upbeat message highlighted all of the “remarkable progress” at the University since the beginning of its “strategic positioning” agenda, a coordinated effort that began in 2005 to become one of the top three public research universities in the country within the decade. The University recently released its five-year review of that plan to gauge its strengths and weaknesses, and we would like to do the same.
While we encourage the University to be ambitious and hold itself to a high standard, the administration’s strategic positioning agenda has focused more on manipulating perception of the University than actually improving it.
Strategic positioning is essentially a public relations campaign. It corrupts the ambitious goal of truly becoming one of the top three research universities with cynical tricks so that the University merely appears like it is in the top three. The vapidly titled report, “Achieving Excellence,” is littered with examples.
In that report, the University touts figures that show total financial aid to undergraduates has increased by 50 percent since 2005. Nowhere does it mention that tuition went up by almost exactly that amount in the same period of time. Loans are included in the financial aid numbers, so while the University claims that it is giving students a better deal, cost of attendance and student debt loads are actually rising significantly.
The report pulls the same trick when it brags that research expenditures have risen by $192 million over four years. Spending more does not necessarily mean higher quality, it means just spending more.
It is painfully obvious that the strategic positioning agenda is obsessed with rankings. Much money and energy has gone into raising the University’s retention and graduation rates since the start of strategic positioning, and it’s easy to see why. Graduation and retention rates count for 20 percent of the formula U.S. News and World Report uses to create its rankings.
The standardized test scores, class rank and acceptance rate of the incoming freshman class counts for another 15 percent, and sure enough, the University is trying to drive up those numbers as well. While these statistics can be symptoms of a healthy institution, the University is trying to boost them in order to help itself in the U.S. News and World Report rankings, which do not provide a true picture of university quality.
It is not a bad thing that the University is trying to recruit a more talented freshman class, but it is clear that the strategic positioning agenda spends an inordinate amount of time on only the highest achieving students at the University.
While we should be encouraged that the University is able to recruit more National Merit Scholars, that is only a small part of its job. It should also be focused on teaching and developing its students once they enroll. Recruiting and graduating students is meaningless if they learn nothing here. Furthermore, too much attention to only academically elite students may come at the expense of other students and fails our mission as the state’s flagship public university to promote access to a quality higher education for all.
There have been a few good developments from the strategic positioning agenda. The U Promise Scholarship Program has benefitted many low-income students who would not be able to attend college otherwise, and the Access to Success program provides intensive advising to those who need it most and can benefit most from it.
But the bigger picture is less encouraging. The obsession with rankings and appearances drives the administration to superficially improve statisticss rather than addressing substance. Conspicuously absent from the report are numbers on teaching undergraduates, an area that could make the University an actual top-three school, but doesn’t count in the rankings. Being ambitious is fine, but using cynical and superficial practices to “achieve” that ambition is not. When the University does, its rankings may go up, but its students suffer.