Most workdays, the lake closest to University of Minnesota Prof. Paul Venturelli is St. Paul’s Como Lake. He goes “fishing” in tanks arrayed in the greenhouses on the north side of the St. Paul campus or in the hobby-sized aquaponics system in his Skok Hall office.
But Venturelli’s work at the university’s Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology pertains to many more lakes and fish than these. He’s developing fish population management strategies intended to keep Minnesota’s state fish, the walleye, available for recreational fishing as the climate changes in years ahead.
Does that matter to Greater Minnesota? One need only ask business owners near Lake Mille Lacs, where stress on the walleye population brought about a costly early curtailment of the fishing season this year. Venturelli’s research is leading to new methods to determine how much walleye can be sustainably harvested in each fishable lake, reducing the risk of overfishing. He has also developed a smartphone app, iFishForever, with which anglers can report their fishing experiences to help build a lake-specific database. And his study of disease prevention in aquaponic fish-plus-plant farms should help a growing Minnesota industry keep freshwater fish on dinner plates regardless of lake population changes.
Venturelli is one of thousands of faculty members and students at the U whose scholarship is directed at solving some of the biggest problems on Minnesota’s 21st-century horizon. Notably, most of those problems present challenges for both urban and rural life. How will Minnesota keep its crop yields high enough to feed a growing planet and keep its urban landscape green, while at the same time protecting its signature natural resource, its water? How will a state known for its homogeneous population in the 20th century make the most of growing diversity in the 21st? How will Minnesota, the state with the second-longest life expectancy in the nation, cope with an epidemic of Alzheimer’s disease as baby boomers reach old age?
Questions like these call for inventive answers — and the University of Minnesota is this state’s best engine of invention. That’s why it was disturbing to see the 2015 Legislature shortchange the U amid whispers that some outstate legislators consider it bloated, elitist and excessively metro-oriented. Legislators settled on a $22 million increase in support for U operations through mid-2017, after the Republican-controlled House proposed holding state support flat. By comparison, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system was awarded a $101 million boost.
No one should begrudge MnSCU those additional dollars. Even at that amount, MnSCU was left scrambling to fill a $21 million budget gap through mid-2017.
With 435,000 students and 54 campuses, MnSCU is crucial to the talent boost that’s needed to get Minnesota through the next two decades of working-age population decline. Raising the educational achievement and economic potential of people between ages 18 and 64 is MnSCU’s core mission — one that was underfunded a decade ago as the state coped with persistent deficits. MnSCU deserves a funding catch-up now.
But legislators do future Minnesotans a disservice if they shortchange the University of Minnesota. They also err if they measure the two systems’ need for state support by comparing their per-student costs — a metric that will always put a research-driven university at a disadvantage.
Minnesota’s two higher-educational systems have missions that are complementary but distinct. Minnesota looks to MnSCU for a well-educated workforce; it looks to the U for problem-solving discoveries. Both are needed to keep all corners of the state prosperous.
This season’s story on Minnesota’s Iron Range offers a case in point. That region has been decimated by layoffs as the domestic steel industry struggles with low-cost foreign competition. The five two-year campuses of MnSCU’s Northeast Higher Education District, offering more than a dozen mining-related technical programs, are key to efforts to retain the region’s workforce and improve its skills. Those colleges are giving the industry a chance to rebound.
Meanwhile, the U is at work inventing new mining processes that can give the Iron Range a new lease on life while also safeguarding the environment. One project ready for demonstration would use bacteria to reduce high sulfate concentrations in water, a worrisome potential byproduct of both proposed copper-nickel mining and taconite tailings. Another effort would allow for mining rare precious metals available at shallow depths on the edges of existing ore pits.
A third project would test a process for producing the higher-purity iron ore sought by the modern steel industry. It sought $6.25 million in funding from the 2015 Legislature, and was turned down. The request to the 2016 Legislature is for $3.6 million and should be approved.
Efforts like those should convince Minnesotans that both MnSCU and the U deserve their support. Last session, the university needed more outspoken friends in Greater Minnesota — even as legislators from that region looked to the university to lead the state’s response to the avian flu epidemic that wreaked havoc on the poultry industry.
This summer’s sexual harassment complaints against the former Twin Cities campus athletic director and more recent revelations about athletics department expense-account excesses have given fresh ammunition to the U’s critics. Stronger oversight of that department has begun and must continue. Minnesotans should have no reason to question the U’s employment values and fiscal responsibility.
Last Sunday, the Star Tribune Editorial Board described the top items on a proposed “One State Agenda” for the 2016 Legislature. The forecast of a $1.2 billion spendable surplus in the current state budget emboldens us to add one more. The University of Minnesota’s request for $39 million in additional operating funds for the coming year should be approved. The capital investment requests from both higher ed systems should meet with favor.
Then in 2017 and beyond, higher education for the whole state should move up on the de facto priority list that has guided state budgeting for more than 40 years. The late Gov. Rudy Perpich described a worthy goal 30 years ago when he called on Minnesota to become “the brainpower state.” Today, that’s not an aspiration: It’s a survival strategy. And it’s key to holding an increasingly disparate state together.