• October 25, 2014

Meet the Real Winona State

Kevin Carey's recent commentary "The Dangerous Lure of the Research-University Model" conjured up a place he called Winona State University, which he then used to illustrate his claim that higher-education institutions are inappropriately gravitating toward the research-university model. What he wrote about, however, was not the real Winona State. In truth, he used us to burn in effigy an entire class of regional comprehensive universities that have grown and adapted from an earlier teachers-college mission.

For a more realistic look at the very serious question of diversity in higher-education missions, you must go into the field and observe how these institutions are preparing their students for life and work in the 21st century. What you will see is instructive and encouraging, and contrasts sharply with the picture that Carey painted.

Our nation benefits from a diverse, robust set of colleges and universities that provide distinctive learning experiences for students. Institutions like Winona State were founded to serve as points of access for those who might be otherwise shut out of higher education because of geography or financial means. While undergraduate education was, and largely remains, our focus, we also face unprecedented demand from students seeking advanced education. These students are increasingly diverse and come to postsecondary education at different life stages, with varied educational goals. One of the greatest strengths of the United States is that our colleges and universities offer a broad range of learning choices for all students.

In today's uncertain times, many critiques of higher education are more out of date than the institutions they criticize. There is a numbing similarity in these calls to arms—broad generalizations based on limited information, narrow viewpoints, claims that higher education is in decline, and simple recipes for a quick fix. The reality is that academic institutions across the country are thoughtfully re-examining what it means to be educated for a new century, and creating purposeful educational environments that foster qualities our graduates will need to lead productive, responsible, and creative lives.

At Winona State University, we have completely redesigned our undergraduate program in nursing to bring the experiences of our students closer to the realities of practice in real time, with real people, supported by appropriate instructional technologies. That means we need a thriving campus community and close working relationships with health-care providers in our region and beyond. In addition, we are redesigning our teacher-preparation programs, and, in cooperation with K-12 educators in our region, completely rethinking how we recruit, prepare, place, and support teachers. In carefully developing our academic offerings, we are simply attempting to make more accessible and user-friendly choices available to as many students as possible. Indeed, the expansion of academic choices at institutions like Winona State may well be the ultimate "disruptive innovation" that reform-minded people so admire.

Our Integrated Wellness Complex is a dynamic learning environment that serves as many as 11,000 students, including those from our collaborative institution, Minnesota State College-Southeast Technical. At the wellness complex, students practice healthy lifestyles in a working laboratory that also offers excellent professional experiences for allied-health students preparing for careers in such fields as health promotion, cardiopulmonary rehabilitation, and sports sciences.

Our university's academic programs are also intentionally coordinated. Our faculty work together to create integrative and multidisciplinary options for our students in subjects ranging from child-advocacy studies to environmental sustainability. We also work closely with our sister institutions to design new, easily navigable pathways to careers for both transfer students and adult returning students.

Our story is not unique. Profound challenges face all of us, but many institutions like Winona State are adapting by focusing on students and by paying attention to the social, economic, political, and cultural changes that are shaping the communities we serve. If you are in our neighborhood, we would be glad to show you the real Winona State.

Judith A. Ramaley is president of Winona State University.

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