The U slips, and the state suffers

  • Article by: BRIAN F. RICE
  • Updated: February 22, 2009 - 4:53 AM

Somewhere, those who govern Minnesota lost sight of the importance of the university as an asset, and it shows.

Recently, the Star Tribune reported good news for Carleton College when StateUniversity.com "quietly slipped" the Northfield school in at No. 15 in its ranking of the best 2,000 universities in the country. What was not reported was the bad, even ominous, news that the University of Minnesota ranked 199th in the same survey -- a ranking that places the university 10th out of the 11 schools in the Big Ten (add Penn State). This is very sobering news considering that on the same day a report from the Federal Reserve indicated that Minnesota has the highest unemployment rate in the upper Midwest, trailing only Michigan.

Minnesotans have long lived with the myth that the U is an elite academic institution and that our employment trends are always better than other states. Neither are truisms today. Last fall, my son went off to college. A number of years before that event, I researched colleges from the East Coast to the West Coast. The rankings that StateUniversity.com made of institutions of higher learning are not an anomaly. Two years ago, U.S. News & World Report ranked Minnesota tied for ninth among the Big Ten schools. This year, the same U.S. News report ranks the U seventh. The University of Wisconsin-Madison has consistently ranked higher than the University of Minnesota in these surveys, and that state is doing better than ours in other economic measures as well. What is going on?

As a parent, I cannot help looking back at my experience in trying to find a university and graduate school. I graduated from high school in 1975 and attended the University of Notre Dame. My recollection at the time was that Notre Dame was in the top 20 and the U of M was ranked around 40th. I decided on Notre Dame. Upon graduating, I was accepted at three law schools: the U of M, Georgetown University and Columbia. At the time, Columbia ranked seventh, Minnesota 12th and Georgetown 13th. My decision to come to Minnesota was quite easy: The U's Law School had an excellent reputation and exceptionally affordable tuition -- less than half that of the other two schools. I don't regret that decision for a second.

Last fall, I noticed a ranking from U.S. News & World Report on law schools. That report indicated that since I graduated, Columbia had gone from seventh to fourth, Georgetown was ranked 14th (about the same) and the University of Minnesota Law School had slipped to 22nd. I had to ask myself why is it that Holy Cross priests of Notre Dame, the Jesuits at Georgetown and the overseers at Columbia have been able to maintain the value of their national brands while Minnesota's ranking has dropped precipitously?

My oldest son was accepted at several colleges. One was the University of Wisconsin, which given our reciprocity and Wisconsin's national ranking would have been a great buy. Ultimately, he decided to go to USC in Los Angeles. As a father, I was very proud of his accomplishment, but I am also very worried about whether he will return to Minnesota. Not only does our state have to compete on weather, it has to compete for talent. At the time I graduated from college 30 years ago, the university's law school acted as a magnet to retain in-state talent and as a beacon to attract kids from other parts of the country. At least 25 percent of the students in my law school class were not from Minnesota. Attracting those brains and retaining many of our own adds immeasurably to our state's economy and culture. Can we keep doing that given where we now rank nationally? That is a major question.

I also have to look at this issue from a son's perspective. My father served in the Legislature for 26 years and worked for Gov. Karl Rolvaag for four years. He was also a graduate of the U of M. To him, the university was sacred. He understood, perhaps better than my generation, that as the university goes, so goes the state. Somewhere along the way, the people who govern our state have lost sight of an asset that is as precious to our economic and cultural climate as its water and air are to our health. Institutions of higher education and the University of Minnesota specifically are the engines that drive the mind and every idea, invention, product and thought that springs from there. That truly is our hope for a better future.

Our state is faced with yet another budget crisis and another round of cutting and retrenchment. Somewhere in those many crises that have occurred over the last 30 years, I can't help but think that decisions have been made that in the long run diminish this great state that we know as Minnesota.

Brian F. Rice, a Minneapolis attorney and 1982 University of Minnesota Law School graduate, is active in political and community affairs.

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