The Mayo Clinic of Higher Ed

Originally appeared in Washington Monthly's Annual College Guide.

Also from ES | September 1, 2010
Related Issue(s): College Costs

On a cold Friday afternoon in February, Chelsea Griffin walked through the fading winter light of downtown Rochester, Minnesota, past old-style restaurants and stores filled with balloons and flowers, into the marble-clad halls of the Mayo Clinic.

An elevator and staircase led her to a windowless laboratory, with a stainless steel sink on her left and cabinets filled with medical equipment on her right. In the center of the room, lying prone on a table, was the corpse of a middle-aged man. His chest was split open and his ribs were splayed to either side. Chelsea put on a white laboratory coat and pulled a pair of blue latex gloves over her hands. As a group of students watched, she reached into the cavity and pulled out the heart, feeling the weight of it in her wrist and arm. Her index finger traced a path to a spot just above the right ventricle. She knew this part of the internal human anatomy better than any other. Twice, she had undergone surgery to repair a hole there that threatened her life.

The thought of it brought her up short, and her eyes welled with tears. For a moment, her perspective shifted up and out. She saw herself, standing in a lab coat with a stranger’s heart in her hands. This, she thought, is where I’m meant to be.

And yet, if it were up to the norms and conventions of American higher education, Chelsea wouldn’t have been there. Chelsea is not a doctor or a nurse, or an intern or a researcher or even an upperclassman studying pre-med. She was, at that moment, an eighteen-year-old college freshman. Instead of sitting bored in the back of a cavernous lecture hall or starting another weekend bacchanal, she’s been getting the kind of education that most undergraduates only dream about: modern facilities, small classes taught by tenure-track professors, a cutting-edge interdisciplinary curriculum, and access to the best minds of science and industry. Instead of reading about human anatomy, Chelsea Griffin sees it firsthand.

In a competitive economy, many students need an education like this. Unfortunately, most people like Chelsea aren’t getting one. The small colleges that specialize in high-quality teaching tend to be exclusive and cripplingly expensive. Meanwhile, the public universities that educate most students are in crisis. Rocked by steep budget cuts, they’re increasing class sizes, cutting faculty salaries, and turning away tens of thousands of qualified students. Many of those universities offered a mediocre, impersonal education to begin with. Now they’re getting worse, and nobody seems to know how to stop the bleeding.

But here’s the thing about Chelsea: she isn’t enrolled at an ancient private liberal arts college or an exclusive, wealthy university. Her institution admitted its first undergraduates less than a year ago. And while nearly every other public university in America is retrenching, Chelsea’s university is expanding, under exactly the same financial conditions. What will the taxpayer cost of this expansion be? Nothing at all.

Chelsea’s school has an unremarkable-sounding name but a groundbreaking approach to education. She is a student at the University of Minnesota Rochester, a campus based on the idea that most of what we know about how a public university should operate is wrong, that it can be done better, for modest amounts of money, right away. States across the nation could solve many of their higher education problems by replicating this effort—if they can overcome the entrenched interests of existing colleges and their own failure of imagination.

Understanding what UMR is requires first understanding what it is not: an institution built in the classic mold. That model was established in the late nineteenth century, based on the German research university, and revolves around the individual scholar. In the mind’s eye, we still see men like Newton, hunched over a desk in the stone aeries of Trinity College, revealing the universe through sheer force of cognition. That kind of individuality goes hand in hand with autonomy. And autonomy, more than anything else, has defined the way higher education works today.

Ideas like these were on Stephen Lehmkuhle’s mind when he first arrived in Rochester in 2007. Tall and balding with a genial affect and a neat moustache, Lehmkuhle was then a senior administrator in the University of Missouri system. He was also, crucially, a trained experimental psychologist. He had thought deeply about the human brain and the vast web of neural links that turn a mass of individual cells into glorious, high-functioning complexity. Yet when he looked around his university, he saw instance after instance of unmade connections between the autonomous components of organizations that were far more atomized than they needed to be.

Lehmkuhle was competing to be the first chancellor of UMR. While the University of Minnesota had offered classes to Rochester’s 100,000 residents since the 1960s, a blue-ribbon commission convened by Governor Tim Pawlenty recommended in 2006 to expand those operations into an official fourth branch of the university, joining Duluth, Morris, Crookston, and the flagship campus in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The commission envisioned that UMR would focus exclusively on graduate programs in health, taking advantage of the world-famous Mayo Clinic’s expertise. But Lehmkuhle wanted to do more. He proposed adding a new bachelor’s degree of health sciences, a novel program that would operate unlike anything else in the system. In September 2007, he got the job.

Lehmkuhle’s first challenge was deciding where to put the university. College campuses tend to evolve over time into miniature city-states, with their own churches, police forces, concert halls, and security walls, cut off from surrounding communities. Lehmkuhle wanted his campus to be an integral part of Rochester. Plus, he didn’t have a lot of money to work with.

Fortunately, Rochester was eager for a new university to create jobs and liven up a city center whose restaurants and stores mostly served elderly visitors to Mayo. Lehmkuhle set up shop on the third and fourth floors of a shopping center in the heart of downtown, where a food court used to be. The city kicked in $11 million to help him build offices, classrooms, and laboratories.

Lehmkuhle then struck up a partnership with the city’s biggest employer. Under the terms of an unusual agreement between UMR and Mayo, the clinic’s doctors and researchers guest-lecture in UMR health science classes. UMR students have access to research laboratories, a 10,000-square-foot medical simulation center complete with robotic surgical mannequins, and other facilities—including Mayo’s cadaver lab. That’s how Chelsea Griffin and a small class of fellow students ended up spending time with dead people on a Friday afternoon.

Next, Lehmkuhle had to hire professors and decide how to organize their work. Traditional universities isolate their faculty in academic departments that often view one another as strange denizens of another planet at best, outright enemies at worst. Departments also accumulate administrative structures—chairs, vice chairs, and so on—over time. Lehmkuhle didn’t have enough money to pay for vice chairs, and he wanted professors from different disciplines to work together. The solution: no departments.

Traditional universities also separate teaching from research. These functions are not just disconnected, but often antagonistic. Many professors vying for tenure in the publish-or-perish system are openly encouraged to neglect their students in favor of scholarship. Lehmkuhle resolved this tension by making tenure at UMR contingent on three factors: teaching, research in the academic disciplines, and research about teaching. For UMR professors, applying their analytic powers to their own teaching practice would be a standard part of the job.

Having connected the university to the community, disciplines to disciplines, and teaching to research, Lehmkuhle also wanted to connect students to one another. Decades of academic studies have found that sticking freshmen in passive, impersonal lectures is educational malpractice. Most students learn best when they’re actively engaged in dialogue and collaboration with faculty and fellow students. UMR classrooms were to be small and intimate, with no “front” from which professors could lecture. Instead of facing a teacher, students would face one another, around tables in teams of four or five.

Rochester turned out to be a particularly hospitable place for Lehmkuhle’s vision. The brothers William and Charles Mayo, who founded their clinic in the late nineteenth century, pioneered the concept of group practice, where doctors collaborate with an emphasis on diagnosis and prevention. The clinic also has a thriving medical school with a focus on hands-on education. When Lehmkuhle looks out his office window at the glass skyways that link the university to the Mayo Clinic buildings two blocks away, he sees the physical manifestation of a philosophical connection between the two institutions. ...

Read more from this article in the September/October 2010 issue of Washington Monthly.