Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Future of the College of Liberal Arts

at the University of Minnesota:

Grim Realism

The College of Liberal Arts 2015 Committee’s CLA 2015 report, released Monday, takes a sobering yet optimistic look at the issues the college must confront in the next few years. Overall, it makes innovative recommendations that will not only help the college to weather the economic downturn, but also provide students with a liberal arts education that prepares them for the 21st century.
The mere existence of this report should raise eyebrows at the state Legislature, where our lawmakers have been slashing higher education funding for years. The report should be required reading for every one of them.

It is distressing that, as the report states, “Any cost reductions would be futile if they did not protect undergraduate tuition revenue.” Undergraduates, especially those from out of state, seem to be viewed as revenue-generators for the college while graduate students are a drain on the college’s finances. It’s also distressing that out of all the University’s colleges, its largest one, CLA, has suffered the most in cutbacks.

I am not so sure that the legislature, even if they were to read the report, is going to be inclined to maintain the university's funding, even at its current low level. Certainly there is plenty to read in the report that indicates poor priorities and choices about money from the current administration.

The next university administration needs to seriously rethink how they have been doing business at the legislature, especially because for the next few years at least the legislature will be controlled by the GOP.

A good first step would be financial transparency.  And by that I do not mean a data dump where Regents and the administration make the claim that everything is on the table.  Technically it may be, but it is not decipherable.

Two simple things that could be done to put the discussion with the legislature on firmer ground:

1) Spell out what the actual cost is for the education of an undergraduate for one year at the U of M.  Give an explanation.  Of course whatever is done is subject to some argument, but so be it.  At least we will have a better idea of the expenses and revenues on the education side.

2) Spell out how much research at the U actually costs and the difference between outside grant income and actual expenses. Where, exactly, does this money come from?

In negotiations with the legislature, commit to tuition increases at inflationary levels, IF the legislature will make up the difference between educational expenses and tuition revenue.

Since even the GOP seems to be in favor of research, negotiate some sort of arrangement where the legislature will agree to match outside funds generated by research by some percentage.  The negotiations could start at 30% and work down.

Do not attempt to negotiate with the legislature by saying: We need this money because we are very important to the state. 

This is the argument that has been made in the past.  It will no longer fly.  There are plenty of hungry mouths out there - literally and figuratively - and we are just one of them.


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