Sean Kershaw's Weblog
June 30, 2011
Policy change is no longer just about those "five guys"
In March I was lucky enough to have lunch with two people who are both personal mentors and sources of inspiration. Near the end of our conversation, one of them leaned over the table, looked me in the eye, and got to the point.
"A generation ago there were five institutional leaders in Minnesota we went to in order to get something done. The Citizens League had clout in this public space. But what happens today? Is it your energy and enthusiasm that propels the Citizens League, or is there a method to what you are trying to achieve?"
I'll get to my response at the end, but this question made me think that our current project examining the future of higher education offers a great opportunity for us to demonstrate our continuing relevance and our new model for policymaking, a model we think can succeed in today's public arena at a time when the "five guys" approach is long gone.
Outcomes and accountability
There is an emerging consensus that our post-secondary (higher education) outcomes are insufficient; that we're not producing the workers and citizens our economy and our democracy need. Concerns are growing, too, about student readiness, cost, debt, and disparities in completion rates by race and income.
There is also debate about just what outcomes higher education should produce. What's the right mix of technical and critical thinking skills needed by today's workforce, and by tomorrow's? Can we connect higher education's role as a training ground for the workplace with its role in sustaining a healthy democracy, one that can govern efficiently and effectively? There's no real consensus yet.
Part of our opportunity with this work is to reassess the outcomes we want from higher education. Without clearly identifying what we want and need higher education to achieve it is difficult if not impossible to hold any group or institution accountable for the system's successes or failures.
From 5 to 5 million
One thing is clear: our efforts to solve our higher education challenges will need to involve more than just people in higher education. Reform won't be successful unless we recognize that the stakeholders in this system are more diverse than ever, and that they all need to participate in defining and delivering outcomes. We are all the "who" in this system.
- Employers play a role in defining the higher education outcomes needed to support the future and current workers.
- P-12 and post-secondary institutions are more interdependent than ever and must support each other.
- Families and individuals need to prepare and save for post-secondary education and be academically responsible and ready.
- Nonprofits can and should play new roles in supporting students and families.
- Minnesotans need to support reform that benefits us all -- and future generations.
A common purpose
Reform will need to unite these diverse stakeholders in a purpose big enough and inclusive enough to fit them all. That common purpose is democracy. Post-secondary education isn't just important for individuals, it's important for our ability to govern, and to solve our common problems in ways that benefit the common good. In a world where knowledge and professional expertise are essential human and economic resources, higher education can and must develop citizens' skills, knowledge, expertise and leadership abilities. I'm also willing to bet that what is good for democracy is good for the economy. Our private wealth is tied to our common wealth.
Reality and possibilities
So, getting back to the questions posed by my mentor. As the Citizens League prepares to celebrate 60 years of public policy work, can we continue to succeed in this new era of policymaking with its focus on single issues, special interests and hyper-partisanship? Those "five guys" aren't coming back. How can we replicate their success in these times?
Over the past several years, we have developed a set of operating principles, to help us better engage stakeholders in developing policy that supports and furthers the common interest of Minnesotans rather than the narrow interests of one particular group or ideology. Our civic organizing process allows us to better define problems and to build the capacity to implement recommendations by developing the civic infrastructure needed for success.
As I finished answering the questions, my mentor nodded his head in agreement (or relief). There is a method to our madness.
Nearly sixty years after its founding, the Citizens League remains committed citizen-based public policy that serves the common good and the interest of all Minnesotans. Our methods may be different now, but our mission hasn't changed.
Posted by Sean Kershaw at June 30, 2011 4:47 PM