John Adams, University of Minnesota
Minnesota can and must improve higher ed
A Civic Caucus
Review of Minnesota’s
Interview December 16, 2017
John Adams, Steve Anderson,
Anne Carlson, Janis Clay (executive director), Pat Davies, Paul
Gilje, Randy Johnson, Marina Lyon, Paul Ostrow (chair), Bill
Rudelius, Dana Schroeder (associate director), Clarence Shallbetter,
T. Williams. By phone: Audrey Clay, Dan Loritz.
University of Minnesota Emeritus Professor
John Adams believes Minnesota must continue to keep improving the
outcomes of higher education, given the exceptional resources that
are invested and the important stakes for students and for the
state. He says those who work for our colleges and universities must
take serious steps toward owning the higher education enterprise,
rather than merely punching a time clock. He points to a significant
difference between faculty members who believed "they were
the University" and those who believed and acted as though "they
merely worked at the University."
He discusses the importance of the mission
of every college or university, saying the mission comes first. He
states that a major obstacle to carrying out that mission is
careerism on the part of faculty members, which generally means
they are not dedicated to the vocation of teaching. Those faculty
members can usually be counted on to do what's good for themselves,
rather than to support their institution's mission. He adds that
careerism tends to pull people away from working on local and state
Adams lists some of the problems of higher
education, including high costs, high student debt, the need for
remedial classes for students not ready for college work, student
drop-out rates, graduates finding and keeping a satisfactory job
after they leave school and lack of understanding that some students
who enter college should, instead, have moved into a
He lays out five challenges higher
education institutions must strive to meet: (1) strengthening the
various departments of universities; (2) finding and developing
effective leadership; (3) realigning the merit-recognition and
rewards system for faculty members; (4) improving the training of
graduate students; and (5) helping faculty members to grow
professionally through continuing professional education.
John S. Adams is an emeritus faculty
member at the University of Minnesota, both in the Humphrey School
of Public Affairs and the geography department. 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,
University of California at Berkeley, and economic geographer in
residence at the Bank of America world headquarters in San
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 at what factors may affect the
metropolitan area's future.
Adams holds a doctorate in urban geography
from the University of Minnesota and two degrees in economics.
Since September 2015, the Civic Caucus has
been undertaking a review of
quality of Minnesota's past, present and future public-policy
process for anticipating, defining and resolving major community
problems. On Nov. 27, 2016, the Caucus issued its report based on
that review, Looking Back,
Thinking Ahead: Strengthening Minnesota's Public-Policy Process.The
Civic Caucus interviewed University of Minnesota Emeritus Professor
John Adams to learn about ways to improve the functioning of
Minnesota higher education and to understand what barriers might
prevent those institutions from contributing more to finding
solutions to Minnesota's state and local policy problems.
Those who work for our colleges and
universities must take serious steps toward owning the higher
education enterprise, instead of merely punching a time clock.
University of Minnesota (U of M) Emeritus Professor John Adams
said there is a significant difference between faculty members who
believed "they were the University" and those who believed
and acted as though "they merely worked at the University."
Adams listed what he called the "usual
complaints" about higher education:
College costs too much.
Student debt is too high.
The New York Federal Reserve
Bank estimates total student debt at $1 trillion, or more than
$24,000 per debtor--most of it federal student loan debt.
Students are often unprepared for college-level work.
Adams said these students need remedial work, which delays
graduation, while adding to college expense. Several years ago,
Minnesota State (formerly MnSCU) estimated that over 20 percent of
its instructional budget is for remedial high school courses.
Students often drop out before they earn a degree or
Those who finally graduate often take five to eight years to
Graduates have trouble finding a satisfactory job after they
get out and have trouble keeping it. Adams noted that (1)
Employers say too many young people at age 25 still lack the soft
skills that support successful employment, such as showing up on
time, being drug-free, committing to the mission of the
organization and then doing what needs to be done; (2) Employers
say many young people are unprepared, immature and can't follow
instructions; and (3) Many young people are self-absorbed and
unengaged in civic life.
"These are things that can be
affected by what we learn in school," Adams said.
Many students who drop out of high school or graduate and
enter college should, instead, have headed toward a
Adams pointed to several recent books that
address how higher education is falling short:
The Future of
Enrollment: Where Colleges Will Find Their Next Students
(2017), a report of the Chronicle of Higher Education, by
Jeffrey J. Selingo. The report explores three major trends that
are reshaping our colleges and universities: (1) shifting student
demographics; (2) changing migration patterns; and (3) an evolving
admissions function, heavily weighted by financial considerations
on the part of the schools.
Colleges and universities have a
net-revenue-per-student challenge. Adams said this challenge
takes center stage, because most colleges and universities can't
seem to manage either their fixed costs or their variable costs.
One response, he said, has been hiring
adjuncts and paying them $3,000 or $4,000 per course to replace a
retiring professor being paid $150,000 to teach four courses. Some
people say that's exploiting the adjuncts. Instead, Adams argued, it
probably reflects either overpaying the professor or, more likely, a
failure by management to get suitable value for the compensation
provided the professor. He asked how adjuncts could take ownership
of the university where they teach.
One way into the higher education problems
is to start with the basics. Adams said every college or
university has a well-defined mission. He said towards the end of
his career at the U of M, he would address meetings of new faculty
hires by saying, "We didn't recruit you to the University to provide
you with an interesting place to pursue your career with a
personally rewarding job. No, we hired you to carry out the mission
of the University." A number of the new faculty members seemed
puzzled by his statement.
Colleges and universities are complex
organizations and they can, and often do, go off track. Adams
said organization theory says that once the mission is
specified, an organizational structure is put into place and
authority is distributed to be used to support the mission.
Then resources are supplied to fuel the organization and to
serve its mission.
When a system finds itself stressed, he
said, it's common to focus on one of these four aspects and often to
go after the wrong one. For example, Adams said, higher education
institutions often plead for more resources. But the real problem is
that the manager is misdirecting resources to the wrong or
unproductive purposes. So, it's not a resource problem, it's a
The mission comes first. Adams noted
that the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 expanded the mission of
existing higher education institutions and added new institutions
across the country. The mission of the new institutions was to focus
on the teaching of practical agriculture, science, military science
and engineering, without excluding classical studies. He said the
new "land grant mission" was in contrast to, but augmented, the
historic practice of higher education's focus on an abstract liberal
Universities today, including the U of M,
are continually pulled in four different directions:
Preserving reliable knowledge
from the past and passing it on to today's students and the public;
Pursuing basic research and
Carrying out applied research on
contemporary problems; and
Preparing young people for
citizenship and for entry into the economy with the appropriate
knowledge and skills they'll need for gainful employment.
After World War II, Adams said, the
federal government assumed responsibility for putting money into
research universities. That led to many academics working at
cross-purposes to the mission. "Things drifted away from the
mission," he said.
The Carnegie Classification of 4,400
postsecondary schools in the U.S. ranks schools in seven categories,
top to bottom:
Master's colleges and
Associates colleges, where
certificates or associate degrees are the main business;
Special-focus institutions, such
as free-standing law schools or seminaries;
Tribal colleges--schools that
belong to the American Indian Higher Education consortium; and
Not classified group, which
includes 26 schools that don't fit any of the six groups above.
Adams said this layout is an obvious
hierarchy and matches the sense of rank held by many inside and
outside of academia. That leads academics trying to reach the
top-ranked schools to a sense of careerism, rather than dedication
to the vocation of teaching. He said it also leads to mission creep,
with baccalaureate colleges adding master's degree programs,
community colleges moving to offer bachelor's degrees or
vocational-technical colleges trying to get into the bachelor's
"These dynamics are hurting our state by
failing to meet the education and training needs of many of our
young people," he said.
On the demand side of higher education,
students want good jobs after graduation; on the supply side, how
well are faculty members' professional ambitions and their daily
time allocations aligned with the stated university mission?
Adams asked that question and said there are four things that affect
faculty time allocations: (1) what faculty members are expected
to do, given the university's mission; (2) what they enjoy
doing, given their personal tastes; (3) what they're recognized
and rewarded for doing, given the merit criteria of their
university and of their discipline or professional field; and (4)
what they're individually suited to do, given their
personalities, talents, interests and skills.
"It's no wonder many faculty members get
lost in the weeds, often feeling lonely, overwhelmed or
underappreciated," Adams said.
A first challenge is to strengthen the
departments of universities. Adams said strong universities are
built upon strong departments, in terms of their efficiency
in using resources, their effectiveness in carrying out the
mission, and in their culture in providing an agreeable,
supportive place to work.
He said a productive department requires
four attributes: (1) genuine teamwork; (2) effective leadership; (3)
sound management; and (4) capable administration. "And I'm sorry to
say that in the world of academia I inhabited for four decades, we
didn't do well on any of the four," he said.
A second challenge is finding and
developing effective leadership. "An effective leader in a
department, center, program or lab," Adams said, "knows how to
allocate--and reallocate--money, materials, personnel time, effort
or energy to serve the unit's mission and then does it." He said
that higher education culture being what it is, it's hard to realign
efforts and reallocate resources that have outlived their
usefulness, to modify or kill projects that have gone off track, or
to rescue those lost in the weeds.
A major obstacle, he said, is careerism
on the part of some faculty members, which can sometimes work at
cross-purposes to devotion to mission at the unit level. These
faculty members can usually be counted on to do what's good for
themselves and their career. They largely ignore what may be needed
from them to support the team's effort in meeting all parts of the
mission. "Behavior like this can be and usually is corrosive to team
morale," Adams said.
A third challenge is the merit-recognition
and rewards system. "We could, if we decided to do so, align
rewards and recognition with the mission, while remembering that
rewards aren't just monetary," Adams said.
Fourth is the graduate school challenge.
Adams said if universities would train graduate students for the
jobs they will have, it would encourage professors to examine their
own values, behaviors and patterns in their use of time.
A fifth challenge is continuing
professional education. Adams said higher education is the only
learned profession that lacks any requirement for continuing
professional education and training, unlike engineers, architects,
psychologists, medical personnel, etc. "We have to help faculty
members to grow professionally, to think and to learn," he said.
It's important for them to improve their own specialties, to develop
new specialties and to get to know the present and future higher
education landscape, especially if they are headed toward greater
Adams named five ways to improve
Minnesota's higher education industry and that of the country as a
Identify potential leadership
and administrative talent early and train local talent to improve
efficiency and effectiveness in the use of resources.
Align the recognition and
reward systems with the mission.
Get rid of the
one-size-fits-all job descriptions for faculty members.
Overcome the persistent bias
against vocational-technical education and training.
Make it easier for high school
sophomores, juniors and seniors who are not college-bound, for
whatever reasons, to learn about and take advantage of
Enrollment Options (PSEO),
a state program that allows high school students--at no cost to
them--to take college classes for credit.
When money starts to guide people, then
the University's community mission takes a back seat. Adams made
that remark in response to an interviewer's concern about public
higher education institutions in Minnesota and their relationships
with K-12 public schools. The interviewer noted that the University
of Southern California (USC) had adopted a high school.
"When higher ed institutions here go to
the Legislature seeking appropriations, there's seldom any mention
about how they plan to build relationships with the public schools,"
the interviewer said. "Those schools are the source of their future
students, but they do little to develop that pipeline. No one at the
Legislature--or anybody else--raises questions about that."
Adams said careerism is to blame. "If the
faculty owned the University, it would be different," he said. He
noted that the former University High School, located in Minneapolis
near the U of M campus, had a big teacher-training institution
before the Legislature created the Minnesota State Colleges and
Universities System (MnSCU--now known as Minnesota State). "Other
issues intruded, like professors' identity, " Adams said. "When
money starts to guide people, then the University's community
mission takes a back seat."
Another interviewer corroborated Adam's
opinion on the demise of University High School. "We lost a place
that had provided a setting for graduate students to do their Ph.D.
research," the interviewer said. "Where can research on education be
done now in a real setting?"
Adams said that the University is doing
some work on how to connect high schools to the research function.
"Why are we paying high schools to educate kids and paying
Minnesota State to do remedial work for kids coming to the
universities who aren't ready to do college work? Why are we paying
twice? Instead of bellyaching that kids aren't ready for college, we
need to figure out how to fix it."
The University has definitely relinquished
its high standing among academic institutions around the country.
Has it tipped too far to ever come back? An interviewer made
that remark and asked the question. "What is the impact of that?"
the interviewer asked. "The professional schools are not at the top
of the rankings."
Adams said that Bob Holt from the
University did an analysis of the changing rankings of research
universities in the country since the 1920s. There is a steady
decline in the rankings of public research universities, like the
University of Minnesota. In the 1920s, Adams said, among the top
research universities in the U.S. were several Big Ten schools: the
University of Michigan, University of Illinois, University of
Wisconsin and University of Minnesota. "It's been a challenge for
the University of Minnesota to hang onto its ranking," he said.
He said the rankings depend on research
programs, not the professional schools. "On that front, the U of M's
ranking has gone down," he said. "We've slipped; we could do
"Should the U of M be trying to improve
things?" the interviewer asked.
"The University's Regents are aware that
something has to be done and that they need to hold senior
leadership accountable," Adams replied. "Higher-ranked places are a
magnet for talent. It's important to our state."
Adams noted that competitiveness is not
well understood. "If a place is able to maintain its respective
position in the country, it can reallocate its resources," he said.
"If a place is losing its position, like Duluth and St. Louis, it
has fewer choices."
How can we achieve good classroom teaching
and learning for undergraduates? And what's the measure of success?
An interviewer asked those questions and said there aren't
mentors to help faculty learn how to teach.
"When I was at the University, I thought
people could be taught to improve their teaching, even though
they're reluctant to be told how to do it," Adams responded. "But
there's no incentive to improve teaching. It's different in private
colleges. They monitor what's going on in the classroom and they let
people go if they're not effective teachers."
There's no conflict between doing things
for our state and making a broader contribution. Adams made that
statement in response to an interviewer's comment that there is
competition at the University between the pursuit of a national
agenda for research versus what the state might say needs to be
done. Adams said it's important to note that, over the years, people
at the University have made major contributions to the state and
The Department of Psychology developed the MMPI (Minnesota
Multiphasic Personality Inventory),
a psychological test that assesses personality traits and
The Agriculture Department developed new varieties of
The Department of Chemical Engineering worked on taconite.
University Professor Judith Martin spent years working on the
"That's our job," Adams said. "If it's
part of your job, you just do it. There's no reason why not to do
it. But there's a tendency for careerism to pull people away from
local and state issues. It doesn't occur to some faculty members.
They can't think how to bridge to the state."
Sports and student housing are taking
precedence at the University. Adams made that remark in response
to an interviewer's comment that buildings are going up to pursue
the University's agenda of the being the best performers in sports
and in the quality of student housing. Adams said you can't ignore
the fact that some of the major supporters of the University are
sports fans. "But we shouldn't let that overwhelm the University's
mission," he said.
On the issue of building more luxurious
student housing, Adams said a lot of kids can't imagine sharing a
bedroom or sharing a housing unit with three other people. "Some
students think they need a flat-screen TV in their rooms," he said,
noting that housing is the first thing prospective students and
their parents ask about on tours of the University.
There's no one answer to what we should
do. Adams made that remark and said we must start inside the
organization. He noted that when he taught at West Point for a year,
the superintendent of the school would talk constantly about its
What could a governor do? An
interviewer asked that question and said that when he worked in
House Research at the Legislature, he learned that the University is
essentially a fourth branch of government in the state. Adams
responded that in the first place, you have to decide what business
you're in and how things work. He said Gov. Mark Dayton has a decent
set of values, but hasn't been able to articulate them. "If the
governor is able to articulate what we really want the University to
do, he or she can point a compass direction," he said.
Another interviewer agreed. He said the
governor has the bully pulpit and a budget, and can articulate a
state agenda of things he or she would like to see higher education
do and how it can be of service to this state.
How often have we had leadership at a
university that tries to follow its mission?
An interviewer asked that question and
Adams pointed to Purdue University, whose new president, Mitch
Daniels, Jr., is the former governor of Indiana. Adams said Daniels
has captured the public's imagination about how to make Indiana work
better in agriculture, business and other sectors. Adams noted that
Purdue is buying Kaplan, a national for-profit college-test-training
firm, in order to improve the university's online program so it can
supplement its classroom program.
"All presidents try hard to lead their
institutions to follow their stated missions--and they deserve our
understanding and support," Adams said. "But major public research
universities like the University of Minnesota are incredibly complex
organizations, in which internal structures, lines of authority,
faculty and staff incentives, leadership and managerial skills in
colleges and departments, and the allocation of resources can
sometimes overwhelm the most dedicated and skilled leaders."
"Yet," he continued, "despite these
formidable challenges, we have to keep trying to improve the
outcomes, given the exceptional resources that are invested and the
important stakes for students and for our state."
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 (executive director), Pat Davies, Bill Frenzel, Paul Gilje, Dwight Johnson, Randy Johnson, Sallie
Kemper, Ted Kolderie,
Dan Loritz, Tim McDonald, Bruce Mooty, Jim Olson, Paul Ostrow
Popham, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter, and Fred Zimmermany,