University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks didn't exactly issue a call to arms. But at his annual "State of the University" address Thursday, he sounded wistful as he told how, in 1921, students, faculty, alumni and friends rallied by the thousands on University Avenue to protest a proposed cut in the university's state appropriation. The protestors succeeded in whittling the retrenchment from a proposed $3 million to a few thousand dollars, he said.
No mass protest is in the works this year, though the threat to the university's state appropriation may be greater than it's ever been. If Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposal for 2010-11 becomes law, the university will lose nearly $200 million over three years. Tuition will surpass state tax dollars as the largest single source of university funding, Bruininks said.
His counsel was not to take to the streets, but to remind Minnesotans that in coming years, they will need a strong research university more than ever. An aging population will need the talent magnet it provides, while the increasing economic competition the state will face will demand a strong academic response.
"State support is on the wrong trajectory," Bruininks said. " Now is not the time to reduce the university's quality and capacity. Now is the time to invest in the university's quest for excellence." A strategic decision to upgrade the University of Minnesota now, combined with a renewed resolve within the university for both excellence and public accountability, would position the state well when the economy rebounds, he said.
Pawlenty makes the same argument about strategic investment when making the case for a cut in corporate taxes. In fact, Pawlenty's corporate tax cut is nearly equivalent to the budget cut his budget would deal the university. The Legislature would do well to weigh Pawlenty's idea against the proven contribution the University of Minnesota has made to this state's prosperity through the decades, and ask: Which would be the smarter strategic move this year?