Tuesday, October 16, 2012

University must regain 

Minnesotans’ heartfelt trust

From the Grand Forks Herald:
Published October 14, 2012

It’s a creative effort by the Board of Regents to find a middle ground: If the Legislature raises funding for the University of Minnesota back to the level of 2001 — the actual dollar level of 2001, not the figure adjusted for inflation — then the U will freeze tuition for Minnesota undergrads.
Moreover, the university also will condition some of the funding on accomplishments. So, the U won’t get all of the money unless four-year graduation rates go up, among other improvements.
Sound reasonable?

The Mankato (Minn.) Free Press thought so. The Herald reprinted the Free Press’ editorial Saturday. “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,” the editorial began.
But anybody who predicts smooth sailing for the plan should take at the Star Tribune’s online story about it — specifically, at the comments on the story.
Because as of Sunday morning, there were 27 comments, and 24 of them were bitterly hostile.
“It’s nothing more than a trade off,” said one. “The U is NOT holding down costs. It’s adding more costs to the taxpayer in lieu of the students paying more.”
Agreed a second, “A freeze on tuition in exchange for more money from taxpayers is a joke! Taxpayers are the ones who pay that $12,000 tuition, one way or the other. So why is the U demanding more and more? Cut your tuition, and cut your administration!”
Wrote a third, “There are too many tenured professors and administrators who do very little for their six-figure salaries.” Wrote a fourth, “This is all about protecting cushy jobs with golden benefits and pay not seen in the private sector for comparable work.”
The U’s request (and the U itself) did find some supporters. “The legislators and the whiners happily sucked at the public trough subsidizing them at twice the present rate when they went to college,” wrote one.
“But now that it’s their turn to step up and do what their parents and grandparents did, it’s ‘cut back,’ ‘make them pay,’ ‘the kids need to work harder’ and ‘we pay too much.’”
True, online comments are not representative. They’re a snippet, not a snapshot, of public opinion.
But that would be more comforting if the Legislature itself had come to the U’s defense in recent years. Instead, lawmakers slashed funding to — well, to a point where returning to the funding level of 2001 now constitutes a “raise.”
What happened? Why did so many Minnesotans stop believing in the U?
And what could the university do to regain the public’s trust?
University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler should find the answers to those questions. His model should be “The Changing Shape of Minnesota,” the 2004 report from the university’s Humphrey Institute that remains the most forthright look at the state’s evolving politics:
“Minnesotans are convinced that government is wasteful and inefficient, and squandering hard-earned tax dollars on programs that are not run well or do not benefit all people equally,” the report concluded.
Despite the Regents’ creative approach, the U’s budget likely faces an uphill climb in St. Paul. If Kaler can figure out exactly why Minnesotans’ faith has eroded in their U, he’d do both the university and the state a world of good.

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