The Free Press, Mankato, MN

October 3, 2012

U of M aims in the right direction

Jody Swanson, Mankato

— The University of Minnesota unveiled an unusual and somewhat innovative plan for its future a few weeks ago that deserves serious consideration by the Legislature and key stakeholders.

President Eric Kaler detailed plans for an outside-the-box approach to issues of state funding, tuition, accountability and leveraging university assets for economic development. He described it as a “bold request” that will help build Minnesota’s economy and provide a “foundation for a prosperous future.”

The proposal suggests the university has a responsibility to provide the state and its taxpayers with the highest return on investment it can achieve with increasingly scare state dollars. It also suggests the university is key to the state’s economic development and place in the global market.

While many higher education institutions, including Minnesota State, Mankato, and the state university system, have focused on partnering with business, it’s good to see the emphasis coming from the state’s primary research university.

Of course, the plan comes with a funding request that would increase the U’s funding from the Legislature by $91.6 million, or 8.4 percent over the current biennium to $1.18 billion. But Kaler proposed to link part of the funding increase — $14.2 million each year — to a plan to freeze university tuition at all its campuses for two years. That would save a Twin Cities campus student about $2,600 over four years.

The funding request would match the level of funding the U had in 2001, not including inflation. While that seems reasonable, the state will likely be facing another budget deficit (already is in deficit if one includes the school funding shift), and there will be much competition for scare taxpayer funds.

The U seems to acknowledge this as it ties more of its funding to specific goals and performance measures. There’s $11.5 million that would be released if the U increases graduation rates, awards more degrees, boosts financial aid and increases commercialization of its research and technology.

The U is also proposing a new $18 million economic development fund called MNDrive that would bolster research in robotics, global food supply and treatment of brain conditions.

Creating some kind of incentive for the Board of Regents to keep tuition down makes sense and is needed with today’s students incurring thousands of dollars in debt. Accountability is something the Legislature — members of both parties — should require more and more of with public funding of any institution.

The U plan offers operational savings as well. Going forward, the U should make sure it includes education strategies that don’t require bricks and mortar, but rather, deliver services online and through other technologies.

In areas of economic development the Legislature and the U should make sure new proposals do not duplicate efforts already underway, especially the ones in the MnSCU system.

Overall, the proposal is a good start in offering a new approach to developing a state partnership that gives taxpayers maximum return on their investment in the university.