Q+A with the President: Arthur sizes up legislative session, student enrollment, summer plans

Q+A with the President: Arthur sizes up legislative session, student enrollment, summer plans
President Ginny Arthur, left, with 2017-2018 Student Senate President Heather Moenck and senators Jessica Maistrovich, Richard Ketelsen (back left) and Andres Boland at their final meeting of the school year on May 18, 2018. (Kathryn Ganfield / The Metropolitan)

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The Metropolitan met with President Ginny Arthur on May 18, 2018 for an hourlong conversation about many topics, including the end of the legislative session and fading prospects for cybersecurity center funding. She also discussed the effect of student enrollment on the university budget and the Student Senate’s dissatisfaction with the budget process. Plus, she answered a burning question: what work do Metro State administrators do during the sunny summer semester? This is the seventh and final Q & A of the 2017-2018 school year.

Let’s start with the Legislature even though the session isn’t over [the Legislature was scheduled to adjourn May 20, 2018], and bills are still in flux.

I think for legislators the bonding bill is a big focus. I did read early this morning that the governor has vetoed the tax bill. Of course, that has to be top priority because if they don’t fix that, we’re all going to be paying a lot more in state tax.  

What I understand is that it’s still sitting at $3.5 million in campus support [for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system]. It’s important to know that’s one-time money. So that won’t go to the base.

Minnesota State asked for $10 million in supplemental funding from the Legislature, which would have meant about $450,000 for Metro State. So, if the system ends up with $3.5 million, then that’s $137,000 for Metro State? What can you do with that?

I would really need to talk it through with the team. We are in the process of finalizing our own campus budget. We are looking to cut budgets back by about $4 million in order to meet our revenue target.

Our top priority would be things that we might do to improve student persistence and retention.  

Interestingly, we are doing well in terms of getting many students to apply. I would say we have a somewhat low conversion rate. Maybe about a third of the students who apply and are accepted actually enroll. So, we might have a one-time project to try to find out more about why students aren’t enrolling.

We would be looking at tutoring, more events on campus, supporting student resources. I don’t know what the answer will be until that team has a chance to look at all of that.

But because it’s one-time money you can’t count on it to fund a staff position long-term?

Right. That’s the issue. We can’t really use it for people resources unless it was a temporary addition.

Maybe there’s something about training advisors that’s a good one-time investment? Or if there’s something about redesigning orientation and we need some people to put time and resources into that. Those are good one-time projects.

At this point in time, it looks like legislators have declined to fund the proposed cybersecurity center at Metro State.

Yes, it’s gone from $5 million each in operating and capital. It would have been great to get that money from the Legislature because we could accelerate the work we want to do.

I think that we have a good idea, a good program, a really good foundation. We have the partnership that allowed us to open the cyber range [in the Science Education Center on May 16].

Good ideas tend to attract funding from somewhere. We’ll have to make the effort to get out to the business community, do fundraising, look for grants to help support it.

And, of course, next year is a budget year at the Legislature. And there’s a lot of times when ideas bubble up and it takes a couple of years before they gain traction at the legislative level.

Of course, it’s hard to say that we went from $10 million to zero. But, on the other hand, that doesn’t mean we can’t move forward.

Part of Minnesota State’s request was for $25 million to upgrade the ISRS software used on campuses. What should we know about ISRS and its proposed “Next Generation,” as it may not be a visible service for students?  

It’s like the plumbing and the wiring in your house, or the bridges we drive on. We do take it for granted. It [ISRS] is there so that you’ll be able to have a registration system, get a transcript, get financial aid. All student records run through that system.

The system was really fantastic what it was developed in… I forget how many years old it is now. But it really has outlived its usefulness.

Student lives have evolved and campuses have gotten more complicated. All of our accounting records are in there, every way that we have maintained computerized records are part of that system. It affects facilities, it affects our budgeting, affects everything that students need.

So, it’s like bolting things onto your original framework. It becomes hard to maintain. It would be catastrophic if it failed and there is a likelihood it could fail at some point in time.

It is critical for students, but I do understand it’s not really visible to you. It’s just there and you get what you want.

But the day that students can’t get transcripts or access financial aid packages or register for classes—that’s not going to be a happy day.

We are in phase one of the project. With money that was already received from the Legislature along with the matching funds—every campus is contributing—we’ll get through phase one, stabilizing large parts of the system.

When we talked earlier this spring about the FY19 budget, you were looking at a variety of enrollment scenarios: flat enrollment, 1 percent down, or 2 percent down. Which scenario did you base the budget on?

I went to 1 percent down enrollment. That was based on the fact that summer was coming in with stronger enrollment than we thought.

It looks like we’ll either be exactly flat, the same enrollment as last year, or if we’re down it will be like a fraction of a percent. I think the team judged it as very encouraging because summer has kind of been the bellwether of what’s coming in the year over the last three years anyway. If summer is down, then we’re usually seeing it go down in the fall.

I’m hoping that we’re stabilized for this next year. We still want to be conservative.

If you need to make budget cuts, how will you determine what and where to cut? Every office and department equally?

I am fundamentally opposed—and so is the CFO—to doing across the board percentage cuts.  Because there are areas that have uneven needs.

Nursing is a growing program. Computer science is a program that is bursting at the seams. If we were to cut back their resources, we won’t be able to serve students we have enrolled in the program now. Some other areas may be better able to absorb cuts.

There are no thoughts of laying off anyone. But once positions become vacant, as people retire or leave, then we are closely examining if we need the position. Do we need to fill the position right now? What’s the impact if we were to delay filling that position to save some money? Is there any other way to organize the work that needs to be done?

If you have to cut money, it’s an area you can cut and one that won’t hurt the student experience. In the academic and student affairs area, each dean or budget manager is taking a look at their own budgets to see what they might be able to cut back. And then all the rest of the divisions are doing the same thing.

We’re looking at everything, including what food we provide at events. It’s always nice to be able to have cookies and coffee. But we can get by without that and it won’t interfere with the student experience.

Do you need to complete this budget work by July 1?

Yes. Our timeline that we’ve set for ourselves is to have it complete by June 20. That’s important because once the budget is loaded for the next year than people can start the process to encumber funds. That way there’s no interruption if people need stuff on the first day of the fiscal year.

We look at the budget as a plan. Plans can be changed. So, if we start to get more positive information about fall enrollment then we can usually project that spring will have higher enrollment too. Then we can reverse some cuts.

If we get any indications that things are not looking as good, we may try to shift some strategic funds that we set aside in order to do more outreach and maintain enrollment.

What’s your budgeting philosophy? Do you tend towards flexibility or frugality?

I think this will be, by necessity, a somewhat frugal year. But we do remain open and flexible to opportunities that arise. We’ll be continuously monitoring where things stand. You can’t overspend.

Minnesota State requires a student consultation process on the system budget.  Our Student Senate wrote a letter to the Board of Trustees, and they were the only student governing body to express some dissatisfaction with the consultation process. Why do you think that is?

I think they wanted more time to process what’s going on [with the budget]. They understood that the tech fee is going to go up from $7 to $9, and the kinds of initiative that is going to fund. They knew the health care fees were going to be decreased. Which worked to a small net increase in fees for the bulk of students.

But they expressed some concern about graduate tuition going up four percent. Graduate degrees and graduate tuition are different from undergraduate in a couple of ways.

First of all, we have the lowest graduate tuition in the state. Even among the other six universities we are the lowest.

And with graduate education, there’s a funny thing the way people interpret your tuition. One is we must be low quality because our price is lower. That’s an issue that we have to think about.

A four percent increase is not huge, but it helps to close the gap with the other providers of graduate education and kind of keeps us in line. Often for our graduate students—not all of them certainly—but many of them are working in places where they can get tuition remission or assistance from their employer.

Graduate education is a lot more expensive to offer than undergraduate education. So that also helps to justify us having a higher rate on that.

What makes graduate education more expensive than undergraduate?

Faculty workload is supposed to be teaching 21 credits during the academic year. An undergraduate course adds four credits to their workload. For master’s level courses, four credits turn into five credits of workload. If it’s doctoral level, it turns into six credits.

So right there we’re using more of a faculty member’s time. That makes the underlying cost of instruction higher. Graduate programs also need some special facilities. There are smaller class sizes at the graduate level so then you have higher costs. There is a sense that a graduate degree brings a higher return to the student when they get out into their working life.

But we don’t take any tuition increases lightly.

Have you heard from any graduate students about the tuition increase? I haven’t.

What do you do during summer semester? A lot of students aren’t on campus and so they might not see what work goes on.

During the summer the rhythm of work changes a bit. There’s not a lot of events, there aren’t as many faculty and students around.

First of all, I just get some thinking time to take stock of how the past year went and what kinds of things we want to plan for the upcoming year.

It’s time to get out and build the visibility of the university by being out in the community or meeting with our partner institutions.

The pace on campus just slows down quite a bit. We had employees last fall who asked us to consider maybe even closing campus at noon on Friday and to allow people to work 9-hour days and then a half day on Friday. We got as much input as we could and then decided we won’t close officially on Fridays, but supervisors can work with their employees if some would like to work four 10-hour days and have Fridays off.

As long as essential services for students are provided, it’s going to be no impact. I think we’re going to have a lot of people take that option. I’ve heard positive feedback about being able to do that.

So, I think Fridays will be a little quieter. Today [a Friday], after I finish this interview, I don’t have any appointments. All of those binders over there are people’s applications for promotion and tenure. I have to read them and make a decision before June 15.

I think we might have 15 or 16 people who created these binders. They have to demonstrate the criteria contained in the faculty contract: being an excellent teacher, good advisor, providing service to the university or the community, and then doing scholarly work.

At the department level, colleagues review the person’s binder and write a letter of recommendation to the dean for or against tenuring or promoting the person.

The dean passes a recommendation to the provost who then passes it on to me. I make the final determination.

I like to be familiar with the person’s binder. It’s important; I think it is about honoring that person. I should know what their work is, but I’m not going to read them in excruciating detail. I have letters from their colleagues and their dean and their provost.

Sometimes, applications will come to me that have mixed opinions. Those will be the ones that I’ll spend a great deal of time on because I have to discern the right decision.

I always read their narrative. I read their CV [curriculum vitae], I look at their evidence and the recommendations I have received.

We have a contract that says as long as the faculty member meets these five criteria, then they have passed the criteria [for tenure/promotion]. Where the judgment comes into play is that the criteria in disciplinary fields can be very different. In the natural sciences, doing experimental work is very important. In creative writing, it might be that they wrote a book, or they wrote 100 poems or published a play.

These are big career changing decisions. I went through the process myself as a faculty member. I know you want to put in everything that will make your case. So, they tend to create big, big binders. We try to encourage people to do an online portfolio because I can’t carry these binders home!

The decisions will be announced in August at convocation. I need to notify the faculty of my decision by June 15. If you get a letter from me that says you’re tenured, then you’re tenured at that moment in time. Promotions take effect at the start of the next academic year. If you’re going to be promoted to full professor, that would happen in August.

I think students often wonder whether course evaluations [IIQs] make a difference for faculty.

They do make a difference! And I would say that contributes to these huge binders. I could look in these binders and see what every student had to say.

We had a task force to review student course evaluation instruments. They made a recommendation to adopt a new course evaluation that will be available on a mobile phone. One of the things we’ll be doing this summer is considering what’s the rollout? How are we going to implement this change?

We really want to capture the ways that students experience a class and get very solid feedback on what might make the class a better learning experience. Some of the questions that we’re asking students will change.

We want students to know evaluations are important and that people do use them to improve their courses. I think the faculty are feeling a little hesitant about the fact that there won’t be paper forms anymore. But those take so much effort.

In this new system, you can go into D2L and it will be available on mobile devices. In a face-to-face or hybrid class, instead of filling out a paper form, now you’re going to receive a link and spend the next few minutes filling it out in class.

Faculty are worried that students won’t respond to electronic evaluations. But the new system will give students a nudge once in a while: “Hey, you haven’t filled out your course evaluation yet.”

You can actually boost the student response rate very close to a paper and pencil administration in relatively easy ways.

Since it’s electronic and it goes to an off-site, third-party company that does the automatic compilation of the comments, they’ll come back to the faculty member right after grades are turned in. Right now, sometimes it takes weeks or more for people to get them

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