In terms of entertainment value, taking stock of the gawkers wandering around outside TCF Bank Stadium might seem lame, especially compared with the action expected inside the place on autumnal Saturdays.

Still, the trickle of Minnesotans getting to know the new Golden Gophers football palace has been fascinating to Margaret Sughrue Carlson.

The about-to-retire CEO of the University of Minnesota Alumni Association has watched as people find their county's name on the big horseshoe's outer wall, then pose for a photo in front of it. Or pitch a coin into the fountain at Tribal Nations Plaza. Or pause in front of the wall dedicated to Minnesota's military veterans -- and maybe remember that there once was a stadium nearby named Memorial, in World War I veterans' honor.

To Carlson, those gestures are sweet affirmation of the rah-rah speech she made dozens of times in recent years, touting the virtues of a new on-campus football stadium. It would bring Minnesotans together, she said. It would make them proud.

More to today's point: It would strengthen their engagement with the University of Minnesota -- just when ol' Ski-U-Mah is going to really need it.

A few of those stadium admirers must have been struck by the incongruity it represents. Here's a stunner of a stadium, with a $288 million price tag, rising next to a row of pricey bioscience research buildings that will cost three times as much.

They're emblems of a proud and prosperous state, one that appears willing and able to spend big money on its biggest educational institution and on the promise of a new industry.

But those familiar with the state budget know a different story. The University of Minnesota and its public-sector counterpart, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, each just took a $50 million cut in operating funds from what the Legislature authorized for 2010-11, courtesy of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's unallotment.

That's on top of the $83 million cut the 2009 Legislature had already dealt the U in the current academic year; MnSCU took a comparable hit. Federal stimulus dollars make up for about 44 percent of the U's loss in operating money, but only through calendar 2010.

Real fiscal pain is due to hit higher education in 2011 and beyond, as the 2011 Legislature closes what's been projected to be an 18 to 20 percent gap between state spending and revenues in 2012-13.

For pain relief, the University of Minnesota is going to be looking in the direction of all those Minnesotans whose toes start tapping when a band strikes up the Rouser. Minnesota's state universities and two-year colleges have their own alumni, fans and friends similarly in their sights.

The hope isn't only for more donations -- but hold that thought for a moment. The University of Minnesota already counts on donations to provide a not-insignificant 10 percent or so of annual operating revenues.

TCF Bank Stadium would not have been built if its namesake financial institution had not provided $35 million -- and if more than 2,300 individuals, corporations and groups had not come up with $65 million more. It speaks well of the U's donors and leaders that the stadium fund drive also netted $45 million for academic purposes, including scholarships.

Those impressive numbers were produced a) during a recession and b) with only about 19 percent of living university alumni sending a check last year. Clearly, there's room for growth in giving, especially when the economy improves. A vigorous drive is in progress to help pay for the buildings on Bioscience Row.

But more and bigger annual checks aren't all higher ed leaders are hoping for. In her office with a stadium view, Carlson, the alumni CEO, described the vision this way:

"We want to engage the people of this state with the university, not just ask donors to give back. We want people to do a whole lot of things: Speak up for the university. Recruit a student. Attend events. Mentor a student. We need 5 million people to have a story that they can tell somebody else about how the university has affected them. We need them to tell those stories."

Specifically, higher educators want Minnesotans to tell those stories to candidates for governor and the Legislature. They want lawmakers to arrive at the Capitol believing that Minnesotans see higher education as crucial to this state's well-being and won't stand for it being shortchanged.

Can a new stadium inspire Ski-U-Mah storytelling? Ask the 50,000 fans who cheered there last night. Bet you get an earful.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at