The University of Minnesota is offering lawmakers a trade: more state funding for a tuition freeze for undergraduates.
On Friday, the Board of Regents unanimously and enthusiastically approved U President Eric Kaler's $1.18 billion biennial request, his first since taking office.
"This budget reflects a new tone, a new commitment and a new conversation," said Regent Laura Brod, a former Republican state representative. "And I think all three are welcome."
Unlike most requests, which are "about what you want, not about what you're going to do," this promises specifics, she said. It ties a small slice of funding to the university meeting benchmarks, such as better graduation rates. It also earmarks about a third of the new money for four specific research areas, including robotics.
In total, the U is asking lawmakers for $91.6 million more, an 8.4 percent bump over the current biennium. Almost half of that -- $42.6 million over two years -- is linked to a tuition freeze for in-state undergraduates.
The request would bring the university's state funding to what it was in 2001, if fully granted, without adjusting for inflation. Regent Clyde Allen said that the university is just asking for a small portion of what's been cut in recent years.
"This is a rather extraordinary bargain I think we are offering here," Allen said.
In-state, undergraduate tuition now totals $12,060. With fees, books, room and board, and other expenses, the cost reaches $24,718. Several students studying at Coffman Memorial Union midday Friday cheered the prospect of a freeze, which would apply to the base tuition only.
Sophomore Tyler McNeal said that in the short term, students would appreciate a little relief. "I know a lot of my friends are strapped for money and are worried about tuition," said McNeal, who is paying for school with an academic scholarship and his parents' help.
But McNeal, who is studying neuroscience and economics, worries about the long-term effects of the public subsidizing higher education. He believes it's one driver behind decades of tuition increases.
"Tuition is definitely a pressing issue with consequences for everyone," he said. "Do I think working a deal out with the state is going to be the solution? I don't know."
The University of Minnesota's request pledges to cut $28 million in administrative spending. It also ties $11.5 million of new funding in the second year of the biennium for an "accountability fund," which the U could tap if it meets three of five goals. They include awarding more degrees, boosting financial aid and maintaining research and development spending.
Four of those five goals resemble ones the Legislature required last year for the U system to get 1 percent of its funding, and several lawmakers have praised the U for including them in its request.
A plea for research
At the regents meeting Friday, four professors energetically detailed the variety of research projects that would benefit from a new, recurring fund the university has proposed, called MnDRIVE. The U wants the state to bankroll $36 million in research on robotics, food security, treatment for brain disorders and microbes that rid water, soil and even humans of toxins.
Such microorganisms are "vast, varied and have unique metabolisms" that allow them to transform metals, reducing their toxicity, explained Prof. Michael Sadowsky, director of the U's BioTechnology Institute. Researchers hope to harness them for "clean mining," he said.
"This is an area that's going to be expanding in Minnesota," Sadowsky said. "We want to be ahead -- on the forefront -- of developing technologies that allow us to use these resources efficiently without contaminating the environment."
Private companies are retreating from the kind of research that these professors are doing, said Tim Mulcahy, vice president for research. "The private sector is moving further and further away from the early-stage, risky, discovery type of research that universities are uniquely postured to do."
Mulcahy said that the university will use state funding for this research to nab federal research dollars and partner with outside companies.
"If there's ever a question of whether we're asking for charity from the state of Minnesota to support our research endeavors," Kaler said, "I hope you'll leave this morning convinced that an investment in research at the University of Minnesota is the smartest thing the state can do."
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 Twitter: @ByJenna