U of M president calls for 'covenant' with state lawmakersby Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio
Minneapolis — University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks challenged state policy makers Monday to put higher education at the top of their priority list.
Bruininks released his annual state of the university address online. A bout of laryngitis kept him from presenting the speech to an audience last week.
Bruininks is calling for the state to increase support for the University of Minnesota and all of education, but some state lawmakers say that's a hard sell in these tough times.
Bruininks said the state of the university is strong, "but along with every other unit in our society we're obviously struggling with the deep impact of this recession and it'll take us some time to recover."
The university, he said, is doing its best to adapt to the tough times.
To deal with shrinking state funding and rising costs, the university has trimmed its staff by about 1,000 over the last year through retirements and layoffs. Faculty members recently agreed to a temporary pay cut of just over 1 percent, and administrators are looking at ways to use fewer buildings and classrooms to lower campus energy costs.
At the same time, Bruininks says the university is vital to the state economy. He says the university brought in nearly $700 million last year in competitive research grants and contracts, money that supports thousands of jobs in Minnesota.
To keep the university strong, Bruininks wants a commitment from lawmakers to provide stable and increasing funding in the future.
He says after years of declining support, it's time for a "higher education renaissance."
"It's very important in times of fiscal stringency of the type we're experiencing now, to have a serious discussion about priorities, and to have a serious discussion about what we can do better to leverage the public investment we have now," he said.
Bruininks said he wants the state to enter what he calls a "covenant" with the university. Essentially, the university would promise to meet certain goals for graduation and tuition rates, in exchange for solid and dependable levels of funding.
State Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, who chairs a higher education committee at the state Capitol, likes the idea ... in principle.
"I'll sign the covenant, I'm happy to do it," she said. "But I've got 200 colleagues, I've got a bad economy, I've got other pressing needs that need to be addressed."
Pappas said most lawmakers want to support the university, but they can't spend money they don't have. They're currently dealing with a $1.2 billion deficit, while a $5.4 billion budget shortfall looms in the next two-year budget cycle.
State Sen. Claire Robling, R-Jordan, who sits on Pappas' higher education committee, finds it's hard to promise a stable level of funding for the university, when the state itself doesn't have the same guarantee.
"The state revenues go up and down. All of the areas that we also fund go up and down with the tides, and I don't know if we can guarantee one area of our budget a stable funding source," Robling said.
If the state agrees to provide dependable support for higher education in the future, than colleges need to make some changes of their own, Bruininks said. He said they need to be more accountable for the money they receive, they need to do more with the funding they get and do a better job of graduating students.
"I don't think you should have new funding without reform at the same time. I think you need both," he said.
In his address, Bruininks also said it is time for the state to take a look at how it funds two higher education systems, the University of Minnesota and the 54-campus, statewide Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. Bruininks said colleges that once complemented each other now compete for students and dwindling state resources.
In a statement, MnSCU officials say they're ready to discuss how higher education institutions can better serve Minnesota. They also say the state needs what they specialize in, graduates with two-year and four-year degrees, to remain competitive in the global marketplace.