In his first foray into a Minnesota legislative session, new University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler pushed for building projects and promised to improve the relationship between "the state's only research university" and those who control a shrinking part of its budget.
"We're frequently criticized for being big and bureaucratic and arrogant and unresponsive," Kaler told reporters Friday during his first media briefing at the Capitol. "And we're going to be none of those."
This session, Kaler is talking up the university's $209.2 million capital request, $169.5 million of it from state bonding. The included projects would "maximize and extend the life of the university's existing buildings," Kaler said, and quickly create about 4,000 jobs.
It could be an uphill process. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who supports a bigger bonding bill than Republican lawmakers are likely to, included just half of the U's $209.2 million request on his own wish list. In a letter to Kaler, Dayton defended the move, referencing a voice mail Kaler left him.
"I regret that you are disappointed in the level I am considering," Dayton began. But he noted that the U fared well in the last bonding bill. Should it pass, his number "would mean the University of Minnesota would receive a total of $166.893 million in bonding in this biennium," he wrote. "That would be a 43 percent increase over the previous biennium."
Funds for fixer-uppers
On Friday, Kaler acknowledged that the U's recent bonding success could make it harder to advocate for more this year. But he pledged to improve one number on the request, in particular -- for repairs and renovation. There, he might have a few key Republicans' support.
The line item, known as Higher Education Asset Preservation and Replacement -- or HEAPR, "a not very poetic acronym," Kaler joked -- would replace roofs, windows and electrical systems. It's the money the U uses to maintain the system's nearly 28 million square feet statewide.
Dayton included in his list $20 million of the $90 million the U requested for that line item. Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, called the U's overall request "not realistic" but said he would actually recommend a larger number than Dayton did for repairs and renovation.
"If I were to make a choice, HEAPR to me is one of the most important things we should and could do," said Nornes, chair of the House's Higher Education Committee. "It's like taking care of your own house or business; if you don't do it, it gets to be a bigger problem later."
Since his start in July, Kaler has met with 69 legislators, a spokesman said, at the Capitol, in their legislative districts, at Gophers games or over breakfast at Eastcliff, the president's official residence. Nornes noted that he and Kaler had met four times, "all very positive."
Kaler watching tuition
The focus of this legislative session is bonding, not funding. But Kaler began his remarks to reporters Friday with tuition.
The U's in-state, undergraduate tuition and fees have risen to $13,060, and its total cost of attendance is now $23,982, which includes room, board and books. Soaring tuition "is one of the most important challenges facing students and families," Kaler said. "I want to raise it here today because it's also a challenge firmly rooted in this building. The university's tuition and our state funding are inextricably linked."
When he was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota in the late 1970s, state funding made up about 40 percent of the university's budget, Kaler said, a number that has since fallen to about 18 percent.
"As state support falls ... the burden on families grows," he said. "There's a direct correlation."
That phenomenon works in reverse, too, Kaler said. He gave an example: Last summer, when the final budget agreement lessened cuts to the university, Kaler used part of the surplus to ease the planned tuition increase for in-state undergraduates -- from 5 to 3.5 percent, a number he's held to since.
"We'll keep on doing that," he said, "as long as the Legislature and the governor fund us as fully as possible."
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168