As the legislative debate about state funding for the University of Minnesota begins in earnest, allow me to share an experience I had last week while representing the U at an academic conference in Washington, D.C.
During a lunch break, I struck up a conversation with a colleague from Ohio who, as it turns out, once spent a semester teaching in Minnesota about 20 years ago.
"You know," he said, "at that time, there was absolutely no question that Minnesota was a vastly superior institution to Ohio State. But today, I doubt anyone would feel that way, not just at OSU but almost anywhere in the Big Ten. What's going on up there?"
Sadly, this is a question with a very simple answer: What's going on is that the state of Minnesota, without really even having a debate about the subject, has decided that funding a public research university is no longer something it cares to do.
I know that we are in the midst of a terrible budget crisis, that we are all feeling the pain, and that everyone, at some level, is convinced that they are being asked to bear an unfair share of the burden.
And in all honesty, since I am not an expert on state finances or budgetary policy, I really have no way to know if state spending is truly "out of control," as some vociferously claim, or if we are simply suffering the effects of a very deep recession.
But as a member of the U faculty, I do know something about my own institution, and at least this much I am prepared to state with certainty: If the state does have a "spending problem" and not a "revenue problem," it is certainly not because of the U.
This year, for example, our university received less support from the state government -- in real dollars, not figures adjusted for inflation or calculated as a percentage of total revenue -- than it did 10 years ago, even as Minnesota's overall population has increased dramatically in the intervening decade, the U's own enrollment has gone up by over 12,000 students, and the overall cost of education has soared.
Nevertheless, the U now finds itself on the chopping block for yet another round of cuts -- cuts that are not only disproportionate when compared to the overall state deficit, but on such a drastic scale that, if enacted as proposed by the Legislature last week, will bring public support for higher education to the lowest level in living memory.
So before we actually go down this road, I would like to make sure we understand what these reductions will really mean: vast increases in class size; massive tuition hikes; crippling furloughs; closed labs; the permanent loss of core teaching and research faculty; the elimination of departments and perhaps entire colleges -- and untold damage to the economy of our state for decades to come, perhaps forever.
How, exactly, have we gotten to this point? Is it really the case that we Minnesotans now value college education less than the rest of the country? Have we really drifted so far from the values that once made us the most educated state in the union?
Let me simply say this: I was hired by the University of Minnesota in 2004. Since then, like many other members of the faculty, I have had multiple opportunities to take other jobs, including positions at some of the wealthiest private universities in the country.
Yet although these offers would have meant more prestige and significantly more money, I always turned them down -- because I think Minnesota is a great place to live; because I have found wonderful colleagues and great students at the U; and, perhaps most importantly, because I share with a great number of my co-workers a belief in the ideal of public higher education.
However, being committed to a state university only makes sense if the state itself shares that commitment. As much as it pains me to say it, I am no longer sure that Minnesota does. If the budget proposed last week in the Legislature is passed into law, there will no longer be any doubt.
Giancarlo Casale is an associate professor of history at the University of Minnesota.