John Adams, professor emeritus of the University of Minnesota
Higher education institutions
could strengthen state's human capital
by refocusing on their missions
A Civic Caucus
Focus on Human Capital Interview January 30, 2015
Tom Abeles, John Adams,
Dave Broden (vice chair), Pat Davies, Paul Gilje (executive director),
Dan Loritz (chair), Paul Ostrow, Dana Schroeder (associate director),
Clarence Shallbetter. By phone: Randy Johnson.
University of Minnesota
Emeritus Professor John Adams is concerned about the impact of
careerism and poor leadership skills on efforts to improve
postsecondary education's role in the formation of human capital in
Minnesota. He says that through the 1950s and 1960s, most people
working at the University of Minnesota (U of M) felt their job was a
mission-directed vocation, one whose primary focus was on helping
other people. According to Adams, now many people at the U of M,
especially the younger faculty, worry more about tenure, raises and
promotions and seem to feel that the University exists to give them a
good job. And he believes middle managers in Minnesota's public
colleges and universities are often ill-suited for the job and even
further hindered by the rigidities of faculty union contracts at the
Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system institutions.
He prescribes three action targets (and
specific ways to reach them) to help improve the role of higher
education in meeting Minnesota's workforce needs: (1) Enhance the
active cooperation of school districts, high school counselors and
vocational-technical colleges to widen the paths to job training for
high school students who might not be four-year-college-bound; (2)
Clarify the distinctive missions of each segment of MnSCU--community
colleges, technical colleges and state universities--with the aim of
reining in mission drift; and (3) Upgrade middle-management skills in
Minnesota's colleges and universities.
Adams believes we must reexamine the merger
of the technical colleges with the community colleges and four-year
colleges into MnSCU. He says we've muted the value of the technical
colleges by pulling them out of their local communities and putting
them into the MnSCU system. We should, instead, try to figure out how
to reconnect the technical colleges with their local school districts
and the needs of the state's regional economies. And he suggests
eliminating the barrier between grades 12 and 13 for students
following the technical education route.
John Adams is Professor
Emeritus of Geography, Environment and Society in the College of
Liberal Arts and of Planning and Public Affairs in the Humphrey School
of Public Affairs, both at the University of Minnesota. He researches
issues relating to North American cities, urban housing markets and
housing policy, and regional economic development in the United States
and the former Soviet Union. He has been a National Science Foundation
research fellow at the Institute of Urban and Regional Development at
the University of California at Berkeley and economic geographer in
residence at the Bank of America world headquarters in San Francisco.
Adams was senior Fulbright lecturer at the
Institute for Raumordnung at the Economic University in Vienna and was
on the geography faculty of Moscow State University. He has taught at
Pennsylvania State University, the University of Washington and the
U.S. Military Academy at West Point. His most recent book,
Minneapolis-St. Paul: People, Place, and Public Life, looks at the
region's growth and what factors might affect the metropolitan area's
future. He is currently working on higher-education reform in
Minnesota and is past president of the University of Minnesota
Adams is a Minnesota native and grew up in
Minneapolis. After receiving his B.A. in economics and mathematics
from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and his M.A. in
economics and statistics at the University of Minnesota, he completed
his Ph.D. in economic geography at Minnesota.
Since the Civic Caucus released
its statement on human capital
in September 2014, it has concentrated on learning more about the
challenges of maintaining a strong workforce in Minnesota in the
coming years. The Civic Caucus interviewed John Adams to get his
perspective on changes needed in postsecondary education in Minnesota
to adequately prepare and train students for the state's current and
Over the years at the
University of Minnesota (U of M), through the 1950s and 1960s, most
people working there had the idea that their job was a vocation or
mission and that they were helping other people. "Now many people
there have a very different approach to their jobs," said U of M
Emeritus Professor John Adams. "Now at the University, people too
often, especially the younger faculty, worry about tenure, raises and
promotions. As a colleague imbued with a different idea about why we
were there, this got more and more on my nerves. I've been annoyed by
many self-centered attitudes I've encountered at the University."
In an essay some years ago, a British
commentator suggested that too many people in the U.K. and the U.S.
have the "British disease," that is, a disdain for the doing of useful
work. Adams said British tradition often held that high-class
people owned land and collected rents, but they didn't work; other
people did. That attitude began to permeate American culture and it
undergirds the attitude here toward vocational-technical education, he
From 1880 to 1990, the U.S. Census Bureau
used a classification of occupations based on 10 categories, with the
top five classified as "white collar" and the lower five classified as
"blue collar." Adams said this system grew out of a poll asking
people which occupations they would want their children to have. This
was used as the foundation for designing the hierarchy of occupations
used in Census publications until 1990.
How can we improve the formation of human
capital in Minnesota in the coming years? Adams recommended three
1. Enhance active cooperation of school
districts, high school counselors and vocational-technical schools
in order to widen the paths to job training at vocational-technical
colleges for high school students who may not be
Adams suggested four ways this
could be done:
a. Convince Minnesota State Colleges
and Universities (MnSCU) Chancellor Steven Rosenstone to promote
. Emphasize, Adams said, that this effort is
in MnSCU's interest, because it might improve high school
graduation rates, while expanding MnSCU enrollments.
b. Organize regular year-round field
trips for high school students
across Minnesota, led by
technical college instructors, to various places of employment
and to the technical colleges themselves
c. Identify examples where this effort
is already underway
or beginning to happen, e.g.,
Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC), St. Cloud
Technical & Community College and St. Paul College.
d. Identify obstacles to undertaking
such an effort statewide
and find ways to reduce or
eliminate them. Take down those barriers between the high
schools and community or technical colleges. "In an ideal
world," Adams said, "kids would be able to transfer at age 16 to
the community colleges. We would take away that boundary between
grades 12 and 13."
It's important for high school
teachers and for professors to talk to their students about
careers and to refer them to people who might be able to help
Adams asked why some high school teachers think
they have only one job to do, such as teaching math. "But a lot
of them do have a much broader definition of what their job is,
which is to work with the kids to help them learn all they need
to know, which is only partly math or physics. And most
professors don't know how to do that, either, and don't think
they should have to do it. I think the job definition at both
levels should be broader."
2. Clarify the distinctive missions of
each segment of MnSCU-community colleges, technical colleges and
state universities with the aim of reining in mission drift.
"The missions of each school in MnSCU are explicit in statute, but
they're all trying to do more,"Adams said. "We've reached a peak in
the number of kids of college age and the institutions' answer is to
lobby hard for enhanced state and federal aid and to lower admission
standards to get more kids coming who, in an earlier time, wouldn't
have been going to college." He said the institutions' fixed costs
are high and they don't know how to cut them down. "They're looking
at red ink down the road," he said.
3. Upgrade middle-management skills in
Minnesota's colleges and universities.
Adams said the human
resources department at the U of M is disproportionately about
compliance and rules and regulations. But it should also be about
talent development. "We hire faculty members without any attention
to their ability to become leaders of their units and we don't
provide them with any of that type of training," he said. "When I'm
involved in interviewing and hiring faculty members, one of the
things I look for is whether I can see that person as the future
head of a department."
Adams suggested convening a task force
that includes experienced college and university presidents,
provosts and deans, both active and retired, to figure out:
a. Ways to identify future leaders,
managers and administrators
for Minnesota's public and
private postsecondary institutions.
b. How to provide them with continuing
education and training
, so that when they are selected
to assume leadership responsibilities, they are ready for the
c. How to provide Minnesota's current
higher education leaders, managers and administrators continuing
to improve their effectiveness. "There's not
another profession that has no requirements for continuing
professional education other than higher education," Adams said.
"You get your degree, you get your tenure and you do whatever
you decide to do in your research and teaching until you die."
College or university trustees who
understand the big, long-term picture are responsible for looking at
an institution's mission and helping chart a course based on that
mission. Adams said they listen to the president's proposals and
must ask how they align with the mission. "But often that's not what
they do at the U of M's Board of Regents," he said. "The higher
education boards are faced with extremely difficult jobs, often
exceeding their capabilities."
An interviewer commented that the most
significant job of a higher education institution board is to pick the
president. Adams agreed, but said the board should then keep the
president on track and support him or her. "Board members often fail
to do that at board meetings," he said.
Another interviewer remarked that in
corporations, the role of the board of directors has changed over the
last 10 years. "The administration works for the board and not the
other way around," the interviewer said. "For a long time, it's been
the other way around in both private and public institutions."
We've started making careers out of what
used to be vocations.
interviewer remarked that we don't seem to talk about having a
vocation anymore, i.e., to do something you're good at that can change
the world. Adams responded, "When that happens, people begin thinking
the University exists to give them a job." He said he used to speak
each year to new professors, telling them, "We didn't hire you to give
you a good job and benefits. You're here to carry out the mission of
the University." He noted that about half appeared to think that the
University does indeed exist to give them a job. The other half seemed
to understand that they were there to do something valuable for the
Another interviewer commented that the real
recognition for faculty members comes from their siloed fields. Adams
responded, "That's what it has become. But it doesn't have to be an
either/or proposition. If the unit heads and deans knew how to do
their jobs, they would be rewarding people on the basis of doing
all those jobs. It doesn't usually work that way, though."
Unions are well received at the MnSCU
schools because in many schools, the middle management is often weak
or inept and the union protects the faculty. An interviewer asked
whether the higher education unions and tenure discourage the kinds of
faculty-management discussions that should take place. "There have to
be folks in higher education who want to see reforms," the questioner
said. "How are they even heard?"
"In the well-run departments at the U of M,
such as Political Science over the years, no one would ever think of
having a union," Adams said. "They all worked together as a team. The
professors took turns running it and they were all very happy with
their jobs. You don't have to have incompetent people running the
units. The solution is not to get rid of the union, but to figure out
a way to manage these places better."
The rule rigidities that union contracts
lead to at MnSCU diminish the role of leadership and management within
the units and within the colleges. Pretty soon, Adams said the
administrative jobs become the better, higher paid jobs and the jobs
that faculty members strive for. "In the unionized places, they're
then kind of hamstrung in what they can do," he said. "It becomes a
nasty, negative circle. It becomes more and more difficult to do the
job of the stated mission of the organization. Then the schools fail
to deliver a value to society equivalent to the amount of resources
that are poured into them."
Tenure is granted far too soon. "You
can't demonstrate your ability to perform in six years," Adams said.
"Most professors are trained in research universities. What they think
they should be doing is different from what they need to do if they're
teaching in a community college or a four-year school. That's why you
get mission creep, like St. Cloud University wanting to add a Ph.D.
program. The school was never designed to offer Ph.D.'s. But people
who work there went to research universities and in many cases that's
a model, and a status, that they aspire to.
An interviewer commented that the critical
issue is what the role of education in the future should be. The
interviewer said there is no vision for that in Minnesota. The barrier
between high school and postsecondary is disappearing, he continued.
The idea of people sitting in class for 120 credits for graduation is
disappearing. At the U of M, the administration and faculty are
saying, "We have more applicants than we can deal with. Why do we have
to change? Our model is not to change." The interviewer said the
credit hour has nothing to do with competency.
Another interviewer commented that MnSCU
Chancellor Steven Rosenstone is trying to connect with student needs
and to meet the needs of employers across the state. "He's trying to
adapt and is doing what we're talking about needing," the interviewer
said. "But the U of M is reluctant to do so."
Adams replied that how well various colleges
and departments at the U of M are doing on these fronts depends on the
leadership in departments and on the deans of the colleges.
In the last 50 years, we have reduced
dramatically every measure of input in higher education. Adams
noted that the semesters are shorter, the class hours are shorter and
the number of courses students take is fewer. "But we're giving the
same degrees and not asking if anyone has learned much," he said.
"Part of the problem is that as the doors to higher education have
opened wider since the 1960s, we seem to keep lowering the standards
in high schools and the universities."
An interviewer commented that we keep
rewarding failure. "We've treated public institutions almost as a free
market, oblivious to the billions of dollars of public money going
into them," the interviewer said. "We need to develop systems that
will hold public institutions accountable."
The merger of the technical colleges with
the community colleges and the four-year colleges into MnSCU needs to
be reexamined. "Lumping them all together is to obscure the needs
of the state and to obscure the differences among kids," Adams said.
"We've muted the value of the technical colleges by yanking them out
of their local communities and putting them into the MnSCU system."
(Prior to the MnSCU merger, school districts ran the technical
colleges located within their boundaries.) He noted that technical and
community colleges do two separate jobs and have two separate
missions. He has no problem with the community colleges and the
four-year colleges being together in one system, but he said we should
try to figure out how to reconnect the technical colleges with their
local school districts and the needs of the state's regional
"We need to be clearer about what the
separate missions are so you don't have technical colleges that want
to be community colleges and community colleges that want to be
four-year schools and four-year schools that want to be research
universities," he said. "That's not been an efficient use of resources
in Minnesota." Adams commented that we should eliminate the barrier
between grade 12 and grade 13 for people who are not going the
conventional route to community colleges and four-year colleges.
Cristo Rey High School demonstrates
companies' willingness to work with schools to connect students to the
is a Jesuit-run Catholic high school in Minneapolis in which all
students work one day a week in responsible jobs at local companies
and a few nonprofits. Some of MnSCU's community and technical colleges
are doing the same-and it's working well, Adams said.
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. The Interview Group
includes persons of varying political persuasions,
reflecting years of leadership in politics and
business. Click here
to see a short personal background of each.
S. Adams, David Broden, Audrey Clay, Janis Clay, Pat Davies, Bill
Frenzel, Paul Gilje (executive director), Dwight Johnson, Randy Johnson, Sallie
Kemper, Ted Kolderie,
Dan Loritz (chair),
Tim McDonald, Bruce Mooty, John Mooty, Jim Olson, Paul Ostrow, Wayne
Popham, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter, and Fred Zimmerman