Q+A with the President: Arthur talks textbooks, tuition freezes, winter weather

Q+A with the President: Arthur talks textbooks, tuition freezes, winter weather
Cheryl Tefer, member of the Minnesota State board of trustees, left, with President Ginny Arthur at Metropolitan State University's spring commencement ceremony at the Minneapolis Convention Center on Saturday, April 28, 2018. Instead of a ceremonial academic mace, Arthur carried a dancing staff made by Wisconsin artist Dick Mindykowski of the Lac Courte Oreilles tribe. The staff was commissioned by former Metropolitan State President Sue K. Hammersmith in 2009. Photo courtesy of Metropolitan State University

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The Metropolitan met with President Ginny Arthur on April 24 for an hourlong conversation about legislative initiatives and budget allocations impacting campus. Arthur also discussed her take on tuition hikes and freezes for Minnesota State students. And with more campus closures caused by chilly temperatures and significant snowfalls, she weighed in on how well the university is responding to winter’s worst. This is the sixth Q&A of the 2017-2018 school year.

Editor’s note: The Metropolitan is catching up on conversations with President Arthur. Look for a new Q&A in our November 2018 edition.

The current version of the omnibus higher education bill mandates that the Minnesota State system make a plan for textbook affordability. Is the high cost of textbooks on Metro State’s radar?  Do you want faculty to take textbook price into account when writing syllabi?

It’s been on the radar for the past few years, I think in part to Students United and LeadMN [the advocacy groups representing students in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system] raising this issue.

We know that textbooks have gotten very expensive. Here at Metro we know stories of students who say they can’t buy a textbook until they go sell plasma.

I think our faculty has raised their awareness. Some have gone around developing their own open-source educational resources [OERs]. Our Center for Online Learning has helped facilitate that for faculty members who are interested. Some of our library faculty have assisted in curating these resources.

It does take a lot of effort on the faculty member’s part to use OERs, at least at this point in time, because you have to go out and find all the things and pull them together in the way that you want.

When faculty choose a textbook, nobody tells them what it’s going to cost. So they don’t always know that they’ve just chosen a book that’s going to cost $300. Making them aware of the true costs of book, makes them more careful about the texts they choose. If they get their book orders in in a timely way, it gives students a better chance to get used textbooks or to go look someplace else for textbooks other than the bookstore.

I met with the statewide leadership of Students United. I asked them what they were learning about this issue and they shared some of the things that some of our other sister institutions are doing. For example, right now our bookstore is outsourced to Follett and our arrangement is that they give us a certain percentage of the profit and we put that into student scholarships. That’s certainly a good thing. I think we have a pretty good distribution of scholarships—but they still go to a limited number of students. Whereas lowering the cost of textbooks would affect every student’s cost of education.

I don’t think we can use the fact that we give scholarships as a reason not to examine the model. We are finding out more about a program to buy sets of textbooks and making them available in the library. That makes texts more accessible to students who can’t afford them.

My feeling is that for the most part, at least the faculty at Metro State, but I’m sure faculty across the system, are concerned about the cost burden on students and they just weren’t in touch with how much textbooks are costing.

My guess is over the next couple of years we’re either going to get much lower price textbooks or we’re going to have ways for faculty members to easily get more open educational resources.

This relates back to the campus space allocation study [conducted in fall 2017]  that we did and moving the bookstore out of its current location. The footprint of bookstores is going to be much, much smaller because we’re not going to be selling these big bulky textbooks so much anymore.

 

What is the status of the space-use study?

Our consultant is still in the process of doing the specific measurements and specifications. Making sure everything we are talking about would really work in the spaces we’re talking about, and starting calculating costs. It’s probably going to be late May before they have some proposal back for us to look at. Then we are probably really talking about it on campus in early fall.

 

Were you happy with the amount and quality of feedback you got from the campus community?

I felt like we got a lot of feedback. It made us think about holding off on certain parts of the plan, having a different set of discussions. Some things were really clear, that everybody thinks these are pretty good ideas.

We went to the Student Senate twice and then the consultants came in too. The students had questions about the Student Center. Why was the space designed a particular way? If we have different needs or uses, what could we do to the building?

 

Let’s return to the Legislature. [At the time of this interview, there were four weeks left in the legislative session.] How are you tracking the latest developments? It looks like the omnibus bill may include $5 million for a cybersecurity center here at Metro State.

I’ll give you some background about how this all came about. We have entered into a partnership with a company [Elbit Systems of America] that has a cybersecurity emulator. They wanted to work with a university so they are in essence loaning us or donating it to us for the next five years. We can use it in any of our educational programs. If we use it to generate revenue by doing continuing education training, then we will share some revenue back to them.

It’s what I would call a public-private partnership. It has opened up a lot of opportunities for us because it means we can really help a lot of medium-sized companies that probably don’t have the internal training capabilities for cybersecurity—and even some of the larger corporations may send their cybersecurity staff off somewhere for training. Training isn’t available in very many places and it’s usually pretty expensive.

We are also working with community college partners. I think there are 10 or 12 who are signed on to develop a curriculum that will go through the associate’s degree into the bachelor’s degree [at Metro State].

There’s actually two companies that are interested in working with us to set up a secure operations center on our campus. Because another important thing in managing your cyber security risk—when there’s some kind of an attack being detected, you can transfer the traffic onto another set of servers so that you’re not exposing your business data.

[A secure operations center] would be a perfect training ground for students to have that hands-on experience in a controlled environment. Faculty members would oversee student work and use it for research.

 

How did the company know Metro State would be a good fit for their cyber range?

We have a very good computer science department in general. Professor Sue Fitzgerald and Professor Faisal Kaleem actually worked on the commission looking at national standards for cybersecurity education. They have a lot of credibility, strong knowledge, and are very committed to this kind of education.

I think what happened is Faisal called the company to say, can we get your simulator so I can use it in my class? They said, well, you know, these things cost more than a million dollars but we do want a university partner.

So last fall we entered into the agreement. The equipment was installed early in the spring semester. We set up the training room in the Science Center. And then a legislator was on campus with a group of business people who wanted to learn more about what we were doing. He [Rep. Tony Albright, R-Prior Lake] was very excited by the possibility, so he put this $5 million [for a Metro State cybersecurity operations center] into the bill.

 

If the Legislature allocated $5 million to Metro State for the cybersecurity center, could that impact or reduce funding for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system?

I absolutely support the [Minnesota State] board’s priorities and I believe that every college and university in the system needs more money from the state so that we don’t have to raise student tuition. We can’t raise tuition this year. We do need more assistance from the state.

This was not a matter of legislators saying, ‘we’ll take the $5 million we were going give to Minnesota State and give it to Metro State instead.’ This particular legislator, Rep. Albright, just felt very strongly about this and has worked really hard for the money.

I haven’t been involved in any kind of lobbying of anyone. There was a hearing last week and normally I do go to support the chancellor and the vice chancellor for finance. To have presidents in the audience shows that we are paying attention and we are concerned. But for this, I didn’t go because I didn’t even want to be there in case someone said, we’d like to hear from President Arthur. I didn’t want to possibly be in that situation.

 

At a Minnesota State Board of Trustees meeting on April 17, President Anne Blackhurst of Minnesota State University Moorhead said tuition freezes aren’t working. Do you agree?

Her position is right. When you leave tuition-setting in the hands of the Legislature or when the Legislature takes that on—I mean there are 37 institutions and every student body, community, and campus is different—that’s like using a club when we need a scalpel.

We are assessing how our students are doing, what their debt burden is, what we need to do on campus. It’s better if we can set the tuition in light of our own goals for helping students achieve success.

The Legislature meets every year, but usually makes a [tuition freeze] decision for the biennium. So two years go by in higher ed—a lot can change. It’s a pretty dynamic environment.

I think the Board of Trustees is very well qualified. They are very in tune with the needs of students and what’s at play. Presidents are as well. I think it would be much better if we could make our own decisions about tuition.

President Blackhurst says, even if you give us allocation, it still doesn’t allow us the maneuverability that we really need from year to year. I think it really is about local control.

 

Who do you think needs to be convinced of that message? Legislators? Students?

Certainly, I think students. The student voice is very powerful with legislators and rightly so.  

If a tuition decision is made, it’s going to impact students very directly. And you know, it’s hard to think about, well maybe you don’t ever go to the tutoring center, but it’s there for your use if you need it and maybe some students really do need it.

Education is a public good. It’s a collective. Sometimes the Legislature is responding to a constituent with a particular concern and not examining the full issue. That’s where I think as a campus we can do that better. We can find ways to alleviate the [financial] situations that some students are facing.

The real problem that we’re facing is the disinvestment in higher education. We’re actually doing fairly well compared to many states were state investment has fallen 10 or 15 percent. I mean we’re close to 50 percent.

 

President Blackhurst also shared ideas for incentivizing students to finish their degree through taking a bigger course load.

This is an issue where I might think about it just a little differently [from the other presidents]. I do think it’s important to do what we can do to support students in finishing their education as quickly as they are able.

I don’t always think that it’s feasible to say our [Metro State] students should move towards taking a full-time workload. This is just going to foreclose education to too many people who are at different points in their lives and still want higher ed.

And that’s why Metro State was founded, to provide an educational opportunity for people who did not meet a more traditional mode of going to college.

But this is sometimes a problem for Metro State in our system. Even though we’ve been in the system a long time, even though they know that we’re different, they don’t always get how it works. I’m always fighting against the ‘one-size-fits-all.’

Let’s think about how we would develop the incentives that will do the same thing for our students. Help them to take the maximum course load that they can manage given their life.  

 

There were a number of campus closures during spring semester 2018 due to winter weather. How well do you think the university responded to those events and what would you change in the future?

For the most part, I think we did a pretty good job of getting the word out. The challenge remains that we offer classes in so many different places. So if Normandale decides to close, then we have to notify our people that that campus is closed. Once you say one set of classes is canceled, it’s really hard for people to distinguish. There might be nothing happening in St. Paul and it could be a mess in Minneapolis. But how you convey that message?

I think the first time we had a closure [Jan. 22] it was a bad storm and the person who does Star Alert was off on vacation. So one thing we learned is we need to have more people help. Now the CIO [Chief Information Officer] can do Star Alert and we can get those messages out better.

They are really difficult decisions. For the blizzard we had a week ago [April 13-15], I was in Washington, D.C., and it was sunny, 80 degrees, the flowers were blooming. Then I started getting text messages on Thursday night that the weather report in Minnesota doesn’t look good. We had our Outstanding Student Award reception scheduled on campus on Saturday.  

I hated to put aside the reception because it’s a big deal for students and their families. But we postponed it until the weekend after graduation. I was really reluctant to but when I woke up Saturday morning and looked out my window [at the snow], I knew we made the right decision.

We’re always trying to balance not disrupting classes because canceling a day of class here at Metro State is equal to canceling a week. That’s a big chunk of time.

 

You were among the college presidents who sat down with Mayor Melvin Carter to talk about giving every St. Paul child $50 at birth to start their college savings account. What can you tell us about that?

It was the inaugural meeting of the group. His research assistant had done a fabulous job of researching different approaches to doing this. They’ve looked at programs in other cities. St. Louis has something called “College Kids,” and then there’s “Boston Saves.”

They typically start with some small amount and then hope to maintain some engagement with the families. The longest-running program is in San Francisco [Kindergarten to College (K2C)], which started in 2010. The kids are in third grade, so it’s a little hard to tell how this is really working.

Metro State, MCTC and Saint Paul College were involved in a program called the “Power of YOU” [which makes college tuition-free]. That has kind of died out at Metro State. And part of it was we didn’t get a renewal of funding. This was being funded by the Legislature, foundations and corporations. It still does operate at St. Paul College and MCTC. It really was designed for the first two years of college. It just didn’t work as well for us because we don’t have many students who come to us right out of high school.

I also mentioned to the group and the mayor the idea of micro scholarships. I heard about one aimed at high school kids who are getting ready to make their college decision. Once a semester they upload their report card. Then a college like Metro State could go in and say, great job. If they got five A’s and three B’s, that’s worth a $50 addition to their scholarship account. With corporate pledges, money would go into the account so that if a student decided to come Metro State, they will have already accumulated say, a $3,000 scholarship.

So [regarding Mayor Carter’s initiative] the work group will convene soon, I think in May. I might have to see if I can get someone else who can give it the attention that it deserves because I’m afraid I might be a little too busy. But I’m really interested in that work and I think it’s a great idea. Whatever we can do to help the mayor bring this vision to life, we want to do.

[Ashley Weatherspoon, Metro State’s acting executive director of enrollment services, was appointed to Mayor Carter’s Children’s Savings Account Task Force]

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