A lower tolerance for cuts in higher ed

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 28, 2009 - 10:42 AM

Job growth is expected in knowledge-based industries -- emphasis on 'knowledge.'

President Robert Bruininks told this newspaper 16 months ago that if his University of Minnesota was again threatened with deep state appropriations cuts, he intended to be "meaner than a junkyard dog" in fighting back.

I recall that he was ailing and under the influence of cold medication when he made that threat.

Still, after seeing what Gov. Tim Pawlenty's latest budget proposes to do to higher-education spending in 2012-13, I decided to stop by Morrill Hall and listen for a snarl.

This time, I was the ailing one. To my half-stuffed ears, Bruininks sounded more disappointed than angry. Well, maybe a little indignant, too.

"You can't continually cut and cut and cut," he said. "That's not an aspirational vision for the future. That's a death wish."

Bruininks said he'd hoped that when Pawlenty said in December that he would spare education from cuts, he meant to include higher education. That's what governors in several other knowledge-economy wannabe states are doing.

"You can't have an investment in education without thinking about higher education, especially at a time when all the job growth is going to be in knowledge-based industries," Bruininks said.

Instead, Pawlenty smiled only on K-12. Both higher ed and early ed are on the chopping block -- but not right away. Federal money, and the state spending requirements that go with it, will keep little-learner and adult-learner budgets propped up in 2010-11. The university will be in for $707 million per year, the same amount it received in fiscal 2008.

Then, look out for 2012: The University of Minnesota's proposed annual appropriation drops to $627 million.

"That's an unreasonably large cut," Bruininks said. "It's one that will severely compromise the long-term future of this state."

Under Pawlenty's plan, state support in 2012 will lag expected tuition receipts by about $100 million. Tuition surpassed state support as a source of university revenue this year for the first time in its history. Having crossed, those two lines are expected to continue to diverge. That might not make a discernible difference anytime soon. But over time, it could erode the university's attention to state needs.

That's not the erosion that's uppermost on Bruininks' worry list, however. He's more concerned about how shrinking the pot of money used primarily for faculty salaries will affect the institution's ability to garner research grants.

Top faculty are grant magnets, and are much coveted by institutions around the globe. Lately, Minnesota has been on a research grant roll. It won $675 million in grants and contracts in 2008 -- a $50 million increase, the second-highest increase among U.S. public universities in the last three years.

To a university president, those are sweet numbers. They should be to a governor, too. They're the mark of a university poised to make its home state a major player in biosciences, sustainable energy, nanotechnology et al.

That grant-getting momentum is at risk, even if only a handful of faculty superstars slip away. Bruininks worries that as salaries are squeezed, they'll be the first to go.

"Higher education should be the last thing you cut, because it's an opportunity to invest in human capital and innovation," he said. "When you're in a recession, that's precisely the time to invest in the education and development of your people, and your capital infrastructure.

Bruininks is asking the Legislature to soften Pawlenty's blow. But he's a realist who knows well how government works in his adopted home state. Governors usually get their way.

The president is already making cuts. Wisely, he's advising the university to think of the federal stimulus money as a bridge to a leaner future. It should be used to build the technological capacity for cheaper online instruction, fewer support staff positions and lower campus energy bills, he said.

He's also telling students to brace for higher tuition -- though he promises low- and moderate-income students that scholarship money will keep flowing.

The president and the governor were both new to their jobs the last time the state budget went into the ditch, in 2003. Bruininks took a $185 million cut on the chin that year and did not challenge Pawlenty's no-new-taxes rule.

He's not so reticent now: "If we plan to keep the economy and quality of life high in Minnesota, we need to be looking at some new sources of revenue."

Bruininks doesn't sound junkyard mean when he says it. But if this respected educator says it often enough, some politicians might feel a nip.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.

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