Q+A with President Arthur: Legislative preview and 2018 priorities

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Photo by Professor Carolyn Whitson, Literature & Language Department


The Metropolitan met with President Ginny Arthur on Jan. 16 for an hourlong conversation. The Minnesota Legislature reconvenes on Feb. 20, and Arthur shared her thoughts on how funding for Metro State might fare. She also discussed Minnesota State’s tentative contract settlement with faculty, Metro State’s relationship with the city of St. Paul, and her presidential priorities for 2018. This is the third in a monthly series of interviews.

What will Metro State—as part of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system—ask the Legislature to fund this year?  

We usually make a biennial budget request. This year the biennium was running from July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2019. The way it works is that the Board [of Trustees of Minnesota State] develops the request and looks at it from a whole system point of view. Each campus says here are some things we would do. For Metro State, I said we could use some more advisors and faculty in growing areas.

They put all of that together and come up with that big number. But when we get awarded the appropriation from the Legislature, then the system has a formula that they use to allocate that money out to campuses.

This allocation formula had never been changed since the founding of the system [in 1995]. Three or four years ago, there was a work group in the system to look at the formula. Two changes that were made were particularly beneficial to Metropolitan State.  In the past, the primary mechanism for distributing the allocation out to campuses was full year equivalent [FYE].

I would make the argument that because our students are mostly part-time, it takes almost two students to make a FYE. And yet we don’t advise a “half student.” We advise a whole person.

Metro State, along with some of the community colleges, had really been disadvantaged in the past because our costs were higher. We’re still going to advise students and provide student services and yet in the formula we only got so much. When we redesigned the allocation formula, we accounted for student services by headcount instead of FYE.

Did Metro State have a representative on that work group?

Yes, I represented Metro State on it when I was Provost. We also over weighted to account for students of color, first generation college students, and students who are PELL-eligible. When you look at our Metro State student population, two-thirds fall into those categories. So that gave us more money in the allocation.

How did you develop Metro State’s portion of the budget request and select your priorities?

Normally we wouldn’t have a request [in the second year of the biennium], but Minnesota State is doing a supplemental request. It’s for the difference between $143 million [the 2017 request] and $133 million [the enacted budget], so $10 million. At the same time, Minnesota State had requested $25 million for the biennium for upgrading ISRS [Integrated Statewide Record System; used for financial, student and academic records]. The amount was supposed to be matched by the system office and all the campuses also contributing $25 million. But we only got $4 million from the Legislature in 2017.

The faculty bargaining units and the student associations said this was insufficient. So now Minnesota State is asking for full funding for the ISRS project. That would be $21 million, and then in addition, the $10 million for the campuses. It’s very complicated how this all works!

So our Metro State team didn’t sit down and add up millions in requests. We have to fund salary increases that get approved. We have higher costs for heating to take into account. Then our priorities—if we happen to get money that isn’t already accounted for— are to improve student services and offer greater support, counseling, tutoring and advising.

And are those the priorities because that’s where you see a return on investment?

That’s exactly it. We are trying to figure out what services would make a difference for students. A lot of schools have an “early alert system” so that if a student shows some signs of difficulty early in the semester, that’s the time for a faculty member or advisor to reach out and see how they can help. We want a system that’s more automated.

If we had money, we could add admission counselors and advisers to help students make the transfer from two-year colleges. We think that will result in increased enrollment. We are losing about 30 percent of students from fall to spring semester. And we have data that shows us that the longer a student takes a break from classes, the less likely it is that they’ll come back.

We have devoted some money to $500 scholarships for new transfer students from community colleges. It’s another time when students drop out of the pipeline toward their bachelor’s degree. They get their associate degree and they think they’ll work for year before transferring, and then the inertia principle takes effect.

As a university president, how involved are you with legislative lobbying?

It’s a fine line that we have to walk. There’s a legislative staff at the [Minnesota State Colleges and Universities] system office. We are expected to be supportive of that system-wide agenda and not have too many individual campus requests. When we were looking to get bonding money for the Science Center, then I was expected to reach out to legislators and invite them to campus and to share the advantages of the project. But we wouldn’t be doing that unless the our project was part of the system’s agenda.

Last legislative session, we got funding to refurbish the campus greenhouse, as the new GROW-IT Center. We kept the system office fully informed. We were very successful, but it’s because we went through the Commissioner of Agriculture to get it into the ag bill. They have a foundation at the Department of Agriculture that makes grants to projects that promote agriculture. That worked well because there was nobody in the Higher Ed committees objecting. It flowed separately through the Department of Agriculture.  

Right now we have a lot of interest in growing our programs in cyber security. A couple of legislators have said they might sponsor a bill to fund a cyber security center at Metro State. Well, again, that’s a very delicate dance. We have to let the system office know about it. If it fits in the individual initiative of a legislator, that’s better. Because we can’t control legislators, and if they think it’s a neat idea and they want to do it here, they can move it forward.

I do get involved when the system asks us to reach out to our local legislators. And Metro State and St. Paul College are leaned on the heaviest because we can see the Capitol from our campuses. They’ll want a president to attend a hearing or drop in to see a legislator on the Higher Ed committees. I consider myself “on call” during legislative session.  

The Inter Faculty Organization (IFO) and Minnesota State recently reached a tentative contract settlement. If it’s ratified, what impact will it make on Metro State’s budget?

Now that they came to an agreement, it has to go to the subcommittee on employee relations. They review all the contracts and then they take a vote whether it should go to the full House and Senate for approval. Normally, it’s kind of a pro forma thing. They approve it, it moves forward.

But this year, AFSCME and MAPE [other state employee unions] settled early, back in September. The subcommittee met and rejected the settlements. So now those settlements will go to the full Legislature when the session opens.

If the Legislature rejects the faculty contract settlement, they could say “you don’t need this extra money, because your costs aren’t going up.” That makes it difficult to work on our budget for next year. It’s a short legislative session [Feb. 20 to May 21]. So I guess we’ll know in April whether we will have any additional money, and any additional costs. All of this falls into the political realm. That makes it more difficult to predict.

The state budget forecast that came out in December is not very good. We went from a forecast of about a $1.5 billion surplus to having a deficit. [The lapsed federal Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) accounted for $178 million of the $188 million projected deficit. A February budget forecast will reflect the recent reauthorization of CHIP.] The next biennium gets worse. There’s a lot of uncertainty about tax legislation and whether we can sustain the economic recovery that we have. It’s really uncertain what will happen.

You recently served on St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter’s community hiring panels that made recommendations on the selection of department heads. Can you tell us about that experience?

It was a great experience. I was very happy that I got to participate. I was on the panel for the city’s chief technology officer. In the first round, our group looked at resumes, cover letters, and supplemental materials. They were all de-identified, so we didn’t know who was who. I was an advocate for one application—which maybe some other people would’ve dismissed—and that person got through to the interview stage. I was an advocate for her after the interview too, and she’s the person Mayor Carter chose. I feel like I made an impact.

I thought it was a good process. Maybe it made HR people nervous, but it worked well. It was a rigorous review. In the initial applications, there were 50 or 60 people who applied. We reviewed 35 paper applications after HR sorted out those who met the minimum requirements.

We chose seven people to interview. We had a set of questions we asked them. Mayor Carter’s commitment to openness and transparency and to achieving greater equity in the distribution of department head positions was something we kept in mind as we reviewed applications. We asked the candidates about their plans to promote racial equity if they were hired. The candidates had to have their technical ability, but also a commitment to the mayoral priorities.

The HR director called around the country to ask other major cities if they had ever done hiring like this. And this seems to be a unique process. I think it very much demonstrates the mayor’s taking action and showing commitment to his values. I was honored to be asked to participate in it.

How would you characterize Metro State’s relationship with the City of St. Paul? What does the university need from the city—and vice versa?

Education is a major factor in St. Paul because there are so many colleges located here. St. Paul College and Metro State, because we’re public institutions, also have a particular affinity to supporting the city’s agenda.

One of the big focuses for the Carter administration, and carrying over from the Coleman administration, is how do we get more people employed in the city? We’ve improved the residential quality, added a ballpark and a soccer stadium, and renovated the Palace Theatre and all that. Now how do we make sure there are jobs?

Metropolitan State, in partnership with St. Paul College, educates a lot of individuals who are already located here in St. Paul and want to advance their career to the next level. Many of them come from communities that are otherwise underserved in higher education. We can partner and play a key role with the city in that.

I haven’t asked for a meeting yet with Mayor Carter, because everyone wants to get on his calendar and talk about their agenda. In the spring I would like to have a meeting with him. I’ve reached out by sending a congratulatory letter and saying Metro State wants to be a partner.

There’s also this very interesting issue over right-of-way assessments, which the courts recently overturned. The question is how do nonprofits and tax exempt properties—of which there are so many in the city—contribute to some of the costs of city services? We are already paying for things like snow removal.

There was a recently a Citizens League panel studying the issue, that Greg Mellas [Director of Metro State ‘s Institute for Community Engagement and Scholarship (ICES)]  participated in. It’s a really tricky issue because of the voluntary nature of the payments. But we are a very community-engaged university.

It’s a new year. What are your top presidential priorities for 2018?

We are going to focus on three things. First, enrollment growth. Because we are not expecting more money from the Legislature necessarily. So to maintain our services, we have to grow. We look at the situation in the Twin Cities, and we need to grow so that there are more people getting bachelor’s and master’s degrees to maintain the workforce.

We have to adjust our enrollment thinking. The long-term goal for the system is to increase the number of bachelor’s degree that are conferred, and Metro State has to be a big part of the solution to that. We need to grown enrollment two to three percent.

In the past we have had an academic plan for what programs we will grow, what location will we target. We pretty much fulfilled that. So now I want to support the Provost [Amy Gort] in doing the next four to five year plan. She’s been gathering the data. In the upcoming year, I hope we will get that plan in place. We’ll have the numerical target plus the strategies and tactics underneath that.

This won’t sound very exciting at all, but we need to improve the collection and analysis of data. It’s really important. My hypothesis is that students are not being retained [at Metro State] or not enrolling from the community colleges because the unemployment rate is so healthy right now. But that’s a hypothesis; I don’t have any survey data right now.

We don’t have a lot of strong data to show us if students who use the tutoring center are more successful. So getting a more disciplined approach to data collection and analysis will help us make the right decisions on how to help students. I want to tackle that this year.

And then it’s about working to raise the profile of the university in the community. With our potential students, with funders, with business partners. Too many people—though it’s getting fewer—say “Metro State? I don’t really know anything about it.” So that’s going to be a focus for me.

We are going to start an organized fundraising campaign. We haven’t ever done that Metro State. Now we have an experienced Vice President for University Advancement [Rita Dibble], that’s something she’s working on. It means going to community events, seeking out opportunities to talk about the university in various settings. As employers get to know our graduates, that sets up a cycle. They’ll know our students make great employees and they’ll hire more.