The dustup over University of Minnesota administrative staffing generated by a December Wall Street Journal report appears to be settling in the university's favor at the Capitol. President Eric Kaler presented the preliminary findings of a comparative study of staffing levels to a state House panel Monday, and was met with few questions in response.
Legislators seemed more interested in clamping down tuition. About that, where the university is concerned, the Legislature faces a major impediment -- the state Constitution. It gives the Board of Regents broad power to govern the institution. That includes sole authority to set tuition. (State government has more to say about the governance of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, which have legal status comparable to a state agency.)
The University of Minnesota staffing report, presented in draft form to the Board of Regents last week, found that the university's administrative layers are typical of comparable higher education institutions. But in three of four administrative units studied, the averge number of employees per supervisor was deemed lower than optimal.
Gov. Mark Dayton made his proposed $80 million biennial boost in university funding contingent on the findings of that study. Dayton is expected to say more about his budget on Wednesday, and may announce then whether he's satisfied with the report and Kaler's expressed desire to use it as a roadmap for additional cost-saving measures.
Members of the House Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee appeared to be more interested in Kaler's offer to recommend tuition freezes to the Board of Regents in each of the next two years if the Legislature appropriates an additional $42.6 million in the coming state biennium. Legislators questioned whether they can require a freeze regardless of how much the state spends. Committee chair Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, asked Kaler to tell the committee later this week what would likely happen to tuition if the Legislature rejects Dayton's recommended increase.
Legislators should think twice before challenging the university's constitutional autonomy. A court fight would likely ensue that would do the reputations of both institutions no good. Kaler, who has been in office for 20 months, seems keen to drive down administrative costs and avoid tuition increases while preserving academic quality. Rather than picking a fight, legislators would do well to help Kaler achieve a goal they share.