Diversity of opinion is at the core of university culture. While opinions may vary widely, however, facts never should. Academics know that our reputations hinge upon astute analysis, carefully comparing apples to apples to draw logical conclusions.
That is what was so troubling about a recent opinion piece asserting that the University of Minnesota is overspending on administration ("Where does the U’s money go?", April 7.) In this difficult economy, uncertainty and angst are to be expected. But incorrectly representing facts is not acceptable in academic debate or on the opinion page.
The truth is that the university’s Institutional Support budget category is not "essentially central administration." Eighty-five percent of the growth in this category since 2005 can be attributed to three major items unmentioned in the previous commentary: a significant change in the way utility costs are reported (newly coded as "institutional support"), a required change to the way fringe benefit rates are calculated, and one-time costs related to the university’s new budget software system.
Without these three items, operation and compensation costs for the university’s central administration rose by roughly 8 percent between 2005 and 2008. This is consistent with increases in academic programs and is an order of magnitude less than alleged.
Even so, all units — academic and administrative — have been asked to prepare budgets for the next fiscal year based on unprecedented reductions of 5 percent and 8 percent. To say that proposed "cuts are primarily directed at academic programs" is simply not true. University President Robert Bruininks has repeatedly said that to protect students and the university’s education and research missions, the budget will be balanced by taking proportionally larger reductions in administrative overhead. The U is cutting costs and improving productivity not just for the current biennium, but for the long term.
It is also incorrect to assert that university support for students has declined. As part of the U’s historic commitment to educating Minnesota students, direct financial support for students increased by 32 percent between 2005 and 2008, from $115 million to $152 million. The illusion that scholarship and fellowship expenditures have decreased since 2005 is an apples-and-oranges problem, comparing real past expenditures with rough future estimates.
This is, at the very least, an unfortunate oversight, because it obscures the university’s recent strong leadership and success on these issues. The Promise of Tomorrow Scholarship Drive generated $256 million in private support in the past five years to endow scholarships, doubling the number offered and the size of the awards. The U has also invested $37 million in campuswide support for graduate and professional students. Today all low-income Minnesota students — a full 12 percent of our undergraduates — attend U of M campuses tuition-free thanks to strong institutional and private support. Substantial increases in need-based student support for middle-income Minnesota students are now being modeled to moderate future tuition increases.
For the second time in the past six years, the university is making tough, strategic decisions to reduce costs; to protect quality, and to improve management, productivity, and transparency. The goal is not simply to survive, but to thrive. In times of economic uncertainty, to distort and oversimplify complex budget issues is destructive to everyone. Leading the changes needed to ensure a strong future for the university requires diverse perspectives, new ideas — and a single set of accurate facts.
Judith A. Martin is a professor of urban studies and geography and is chair of the University Senate Finance and Planning Committee.