A Common Good Discussion

From Minnesota Alumni Magazine Summer 2015

By Cynthia Scott


When I was in graduate school at the University’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication, I took a course in interpretive reporting from the venerable Professor Jean Ward. Jean, who was full of common sense and had a talent for getting directly to the heart of the matter, expected reporters to zero in on the context of a story and tell readers why it was important. Context, she said, is everything.

Education reporting, Jean felt, generally fell short of this standard, with too much of it focused on the minutiae of funding and too little on what was happening not just in schools but in the communities they serve; how well, or not, students and families were faring and why; and what was at stake.

I thought of Jean as I was reflecting on a historic conversation that took place on May 4 on the stage at Northrop. The Office of the President and the College of Education and Human Development hosted a discussion among all six of the University of Minnesota’s living presidents: C. Peter Magrath (1974–1984), Ken Keller (1985–1988), Nils Hasselmo (1988–1997), Mark Yudof (1997–2002), Bob Bruininks (2002–2011), and Eric Kaler (2011–present). Moderated by Star Tribune writer Lori Sturdevant, the subject of the conversation was the future of higher education and Minnesota.

The conversation turned early and often to the subject of funding, which, as President Magrath noted, is “extraordinarily more difficult” than it was during his tenure. Indeed, you do not need to go back to the Magrath administration to see the sharp decline in public funding. In 1997, as just one measure, state funding covered 70 percent of the cost of educating a student at the U and tuition covered 30 percent. In 2015, the proportion was reversed, with the state covering 42 percent and tuition 58 percent. What’s going on here?

People far more qualified than I have spent years addressing that question. But I think the presidents got to the crux of the matter with their observations that higher education is increasingly viewed as a private good, not a common good. Hasselmo said he is “alarmed” at the change of attitude on this point among Minnesotans since he served at the U. Keller called the idea that education is not a public good “devastatingly bad.” And Yudof pointed out that higher education is just one of several institutions whose standing as a public good have eroded. Gated communities, private police departments, and private armies, to name a few, are all expressions of this phenomenon, he noted.

Keller called on universities to assert their value as a public good. I don’t know how better to do that than lift up the stories of how University research changes lives and how alumni impact their communities. We have several shining examples in this issue. As you read about David Carr, Cheryl Robertson, Ben Utecht, Rob Stewart, the NOvA project, and others, consider how the University of Minnesota fulfills its mission as a public good.

Reasonable people can and should debate vigorously many aspects of higher education. But there should be no confusion about its essential value as a public good. After all, context is everything.

Cynthia Scott (M.A. ’89) is the editor of Minnesota. She can be reached at scott325@umn.edu.


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