When the University of Minnesota’s Faculty Senate formed in 1912, its members probably couldn’t have imagined the challenges that confront the University today.
In celebrating its centennial this year, the Faculty Senate will hold four public panels to discuss issues including digital education, a changing funding model and the future of the University itself.
The panels, which will involve faculty, staff and students, offer an opportunity for the senate to think in a broader and more anticipatory way than is possible at regular meetings, said Faculty Senate chair Sally Gregory Kohlstedt.
“These issues are coming at us,” she said, “and we need to be ready.”
A chance to look forward
Questions about the University’s future — and the role of different members of the University community in it — run throughout all five discussion topics.
The planning process for the centennial began last year, and topics were decided by a committee made up of people from across the University community.
The Faculty Senate has “a particularly strong role in shared governance” in comparison to similar bodies at peer institutions, Kohlstedt said.
At other universities, faculty senates may struggle to reach their respective administrations, she said. But at the University, administrators regularly attend senate meetings to both listen and solicit opinions.
The centennial offers an opportunity to think about how this relationship will function in the future.
“There’s a desire … to engage a broader spectrum of the University community with a chance to think about emerging topics and inject a little vigor into the system,” said Chris Cramer, a current faculty senator and the former chair.
The digital age
Technology use in the classroom has become a more pressing issue in recent years, and though the University has recognized its necessity, concerns about potential risks remain.
“I think that there’s a whole lot of heat and not that much light going on right now in digital education,” Cramer said.
An Oct. 4 panel will be guided by questions including the place of teaching and research in an increasingly digitized environment and what the role of the University is to serve both its campus and the greater community.
An electronic teaching model would allow the University to serve groups of people it currently does not reach, said Peter Radcliffe, the executive director of the University’s Office of Planning and Analysis.
“I think there’s a great value in the kind of traditional model that we’ve had that we are reluctant to lose,” he said.
Despite its potential risks, digitization does offer a tangible way to reduce costs in the face of decreasing state support, Radcliffe said.
A major issue, Cramer said, is determining how to convince the state of the importance of investing in higher education, not just in terms of economic policy, but for the good of the citizens and the state as a whole.
These are “things that a hundred years ago people just took for granted,” he said. “Now, I’m not even sure you could find a majority who might agree with you.”
In the policy world, there has been a lot of interest recently in changing the way universities are funded altogether.
Radcliffe, who will serve on a second Oct. 4 panel on the economic future of public research universities, said the proposed model would direct fewer state funds to universities and more to students in the form of financial aid. Universities would then rely more heavily on tuition to support themselves.
With possibilities like this one, he said, the resulting discussion becomes a question of the University’s future.
“[The University] has had relatively strong state support historically,” he said, “which means that we have quite a ways that we could fall in the future.”