Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Affordability At The University of Minnesota
Priorities for the Short and Long Term

(Today I had three minutes to make remarks at the Board of Regents Open Forum on the budget. )

Mark Yudof was the 14th President of the University of Minnesota. He has recently been chosen to head the best public higher education system in the country. This is what he said in his U of M inaugural address:

"Minnesotans expect us to be fair in providing access to the University for their sons and daughters.

If we do not provide reasonable access--including access for those who are underprepared and historically underrepresented in higher education and in the upper levels of our socioeconomic life, the taxpayers and state government of Minnesota will turn their backs on our graduate, research, and outreach functions.

Simply stated, it is imperative that we continue to embrace our land-grant roots if we are to thrive."

My first point is that currently student debt is crushing and that the highest priority should be put on addressing this problem.

The claim that scholarships can offset fees and tuition is an empty one. The focus needs to shift to student debt.

According to Kiplinger, we have the highest average student loan debt of any (public) school in the BigTen - $25,000.

And this is just an average. Undergraduates working in my lab have debts greater than this - people who were born in Vietnam, Poland, and the Ukraine. To give but one real example: both parents of one of my Vietnamese students work in an Austin meat-packing plant. She should be going to medical school, but informed me recently that she would have to seek employment immediately after graduation in order to pay off her debts.

Our BigTen-leading student debt is simply unacceptable and taking steps to correct it should be of highest priority.

My second point is the hubris exhibited by our administration's continual parroting of the phrase: "ambitious aspiration to be one of the top three public research universities in the world."

As the faculty senate research committee put it last September:

"Is this a time to be talking about getting into the top three? When units cannot maintain their research capacity, how can they get to the top three? There is little to suggest that the University is on an upward trajectory."

In response to perceived criticism, President Bruininks has said:

"I've heard some of the 'doubters' say things like, I'd settle for best in the Big Ten. Students don't choose the University of Minnesota for (a) mediocre future."

We'd be extremely fortunate to be one of the best schools in the BigTen. Continuing on with this Orwellian third best public research university in the world business, in light of reality, is an embarrassment and only serves to make us look naive and foolish.

To conclude, again with the words of Mark Yudof:

“Some would urge the University to pull back on its land-grant responsibilities.

But at what cost? To save so little and destroy so much? Any short-term gain to research or graduate and professional programs occasioned by cutbacks to the core will be self-defeating. The result will be a decreased level of public support for the entire University enterprise. The University is built on its undergraduate program. If the foundation cracks, the whole edifice is in jeopardy."
(President Bruininks and Provost Sullivan were present while these remarks were made.)

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