"Students want a better future," legislators were told.
Students cheered for robust funding of University of Minnesota at the Capitol on Thursday. But their shouts may compete with an uproar this session over the U's administrative spending.
Hundreds of students from the system's five campuses gathered in the rotunda Thursday, wielding Goldy Gopher buck-teeth-on-a-stick and ticking off the U's research feats.
"Minnesota has not been making the same investment in education that we used to," Taylor Williams, president of the Minnesota Student Association, told the crowd. "Students want a better future ... but we have slowly left them behind as the cost of higher education skyrockets and Minnesota's investment in their future stagnates."
The U is requesting $91.6 million more in state funding over two years, an 8.4 increase. Meanwhile, legislators have their own demand: more data about the university's workforce.
Lawmakers who have asked difficult questions of the university on Thursday emphasized their support for its students and its research. Rep. Gene Pelowski, chairman of the House Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee, told the crowd that "it's time to stop the bleeding of higher education."
"It's time to stop the historic cuts. It's time to stop the historic tuition increases," he said. "It's time to stop the historic debt." U officials have tied part of their request -- an increase of $42.6 million over two years -- to a two-year tuition freeze for Minnesota resident undergrads.
During a hearing this week, Sen. Terri Bonoff asked that U President Eric Kaler commit to that freeze no matter the funding. "I'm asking you, regardless, to find a way to cap tuition for these students," she said.
After the rally, students scattered for meetings with legislators. Andrew Sletten, a junior at the Morris campus, hopes telling "a simple story about how in debt we are, how terrified we are about finding a job" will affect lawmakers, he said. "If any of that can stick here, I feel it's worthwhile."
Sletten said he thinks a tuition freeze is a good idea but worries it would be a bandage "on a much deeper problem."
All 12 members of the U's Board of Regents attended the noon rally. At their meeting afterward, they learned about progress on an analysis that legislators requested earlier this session.
After a Wall Street Journal article in December thrust perennial controversy over the university's spending into a brighter spotlight, Bonoff and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk asked for a report on its workforce by mid-March.
The university is "on a very fast track" to completing that analysis, said Kathy Brown, vice president for human resources.
It will likely show that "we have some areas which are very well-organized," she said, and others where managers might supervise too few people. "The question that arises is, 'Does that area need some reorganization?'" Brown said. A careful review will follow, she said. "These are real people and real jobs, so you have to be thoughtful."
In his budget, Gov. Mark Dayton set aside an $80 million increase for the U -- contingent on results of the March report.
During his speech in the Capitol rotunda, Kaler referred to the challenge. But, he told students, "I like our chances."
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168; Twitter: @ByJenna