New University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler starts school next week with a host of voices in his head.
He spent his summer listening to business leaders at Rotary lunches, acreage owners at Farmfest and members of the U's governing board at a three-day retreat. In a matter of days, the campus will echo with the sounds of students.
Let's add a few more voices to that mix. We asked a diverse set of people who have a stake in the university's work to offer Kaler some advice as he starts his first school year as president. Most have not yet met Kaler. Most were eager to offer a few pointers, things like: Remember there's more to the U than the Twin Cities. Make use of the business community. Drop that goal of being Top 3.
I really hope that he does all he can to make the University of Minnesota affordable for low-income kids -- and also appear affordable.
The most recent data about who earns a four-year college degree by age 24 are alarming. Students from the upper income quartile are now 10 times more likely to earn a four-year college degree than the kids from the lowest income quartile. It's 82 percent compared with about 8 percent.
The trend is going the wrong direction at a time when the premium on higher education is as high as it's ever been.
If we close the door to these students, that's going to be a bad thing for the state of Minnesota, for our economy and also for our community.
If tuition goes up and the aid can go up along with it, that's a good thing. But we have to work really hard to educate kids so that they don't mistakenly see the tuition go up and not see that the aid has gone up, as well.
The best way to signal that is to make sure there is a high-profile scholarship program. So kids start to hear: If I get in, I'll get this scholarship, and then it'll be affordable.
The U's lofty goal of being one of the top three research institutions in the world? I think it should be tossed.
I don't know that we will ever have the resources to achieve it. We can be one of the top three in several areas, but we have to focus on what those areas should be.
For example, because of what we have and do here in Minnesota, a natural area would be food production, agriculture, food processing, nutrition. Those are all really important things, and they tie right into health care, which is another area where we have achieved some success. Let's build on that.
The other thing that is important to our economy is educating our students.
Sometimes I am concerned that the U is becoming a little too academically elite. I hear from families in my district whose children haven't been admitted but who have good résumés, grades and ACT scores.
If we have so many students meeting those standards, then we might we have to expand enrollment. Because once you lose these kids to another state, they don't always come back.
I would like to see him make a commitment to publicly funding higher education. I strongly oppose what is, essentially, the privatization of the law school.
We can argue about the model, what students pay and the funding streams. But it gets back to a value. If the law school is privately financed, it raises the question, in my mind: Can we legitimately call it the University of Minnesota Law School?
Administrators have tough decisions to make. As students, we have to acknowledge that. With that said, I think we also have to figure out how we're going to navigate our values within a very tough economic time.
There's something about a public education. Society is saying that we value our young people, we value people investing in themselves, increasing their human capital and then having that expectation that once you come out of that, you're going to be a contributing member of society. There's a give and take. It's reciprocal.
I have something to give back to the state of Minnesota once I graduate. I feel that obligation.
President Kaler must stop the escalation of tuition that makes this university inaccessible to the children of working families in this state. Students need to be at the center of the institution. There is a need for a livable wage for all employees of the university.
Those two things -- affordable tuition and a livable wage -- are not in conflict with each other. As one of our members said: It's not a budget crisis. It's a distribution crisis.
Middle management has become increasingly bloated. Administrative salaries are on the rise. We're looking at staff cuts and wage freezes, while other employee groups are growing and getting raises.
Reinstating the full Regents Scholarship would definitely foster good will. By cutting the employee scholarship [from 100 percent of tuition to 75 percent], we are now being told that we can't further our education.
When we surveyed our membership, 50 percent said they had difficulty in the past two years paying their mortgage or rent. When you're looking at issues like that, of basic survival, $500 for a class could just as well be $5 million.
I think one of the real challenges the president will have is tied to the organizational structure of the University of Minnesota system. The university president is president of the system but also CEO of the Twin Cities operation. That's pretty unusual.
It's important to keep that front of mind: You are the system president. It is so easy to get caught up -- and how could you not -- in the business of the day in Minneapolis and St. Paul. I have sometimes joked that it's a Twin-centric focus. The system officers are in Morrill Hall, almost exclusively. So it's inevitable.
I would encourage him to make sure he builds into his calendar the opportunities to physically get out to the campuses and many offices of the system in a regular way.
Each campus is distinct. There's the research one, in the Twin Cities. Crookston has its focus on technology and different ways of delivering education. Rochester with the medically related degree programs. Duluth, which I think of as the regionally comprehensive campus and then Morris, which is liberal arts.
We must be cleaner and crisper about who we are and why we are.
There aren't many places where you have a major state university located in the near-downtown of a major metro area. We have 20 Fortune 500 companies in the area, numerous small start-ups.
Having been in the Twin Cities for 26 years, I can say that the opportunity for the business community to utilize the university's resources and the university to utilize the fact that there are so many corporations has never been fully realized.
Businesses have problems they're trying to solve and projects they need to get done. Rather than hiring some fancy consultant, maybe students who need real-life experience can do the job. Not only can they usually get some kind of revenue, but those students get to interact with local businesses and perhaps get hired. So it's a real win-win.
One thing we've been advocating on the Board of Overseers is the ability of the business school to maybe charge a different tuition and fee schedule. The state funding that goes to the business school has dropped dramatically and probably will go to zero. The business school has to find ways to make that up.
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168
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