Upstairs in the Capitol rotunda, University of Minnesota students, leaders and even Goldy Gopher rallied for state funding. Downstairs, in a basement committee room, U President Robert Bruininks outlined what would happen without it.

"For several years now, we have warned of a future tipping point," Bruininks said. "I think that tipping point has arrived or it's very close."

No longer can the U solve its budget by cutting courses, shaving positions, merging colleges. If the state were to again shrink its funding -- as Republicans have proposed -- much bigger changes would be needed, Bruininks told the House Higher Education Committee.

The U could cut all four of its coordinate campuses and still not save enough, he said. Eliminate its medical schools on the Twin Cities and Duluth campuses? Still wouldn't fill the hole. Close all remaining regional extension offices? That wouldn't cover a third of the proposed cuts.

If the U were to increase tuition to cover the entire cut -- something Bruininks promised he would not do -- it would rise by 13 to 17 percent.

"It's not a threat," he said. "It's simply a matter of scale."

It's not a proposal, either. In a note Monday to the U campuses, Bruininks said this of his upcoming testimony: "Please know that my comments are illustrative only."

But Bruininks offered concrete plans, too: The U will again freeze employee wages, if collective bargaining allows. It will have employees pay a higher price for their benefits. It will encourage early retirement.

Some legislators believe the U has plenty of fat left to cut -- especially in administration. Some students do, too.

While students in the Minnesota Student Association on Tuesday called for stable state funding, some members of the College Republicans rallied for "fiscal sanity." Bat down tuition by slashing administrative bloat, they said.

Bruininks addressed that on Tuesday, fielding questions about the next U president's salary ($610,000 for his first year) and reminding legislators that top administrators took double the pay cut of other employees this year.

The U system enrolls about 12,400 more students than in 2000 with stagnant state funding, said Richard Pfutzenreuter, the U's chief financial officer. While state funding provided 43 percent of the U's budget in 1978 and 32 percent in 1994, it makes up just 18 percent this year.

Last year's state appropriation of $623.4 million was less than the U received in 2002, without adjusting for inflation.

Cuts upon cuts could threaten the university's greatness, Bruininks warned. "Six generations of greatness -- and we could lose it in a few bad years."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168