At the Capitol, campuses in mind

  • Article by: Jenna Ross
  • Star Tribune
  • April 12, 2011 - 6:11 PM

Before Sheila Wright was director of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, she was a professor.

It shows.

"As a person who has worked as a faculty member, as a dean, coming out of higher education, I am astonished by these cuts," she told me.

The cuts are those proposed by the House and Senate in higher education spending bills. If enacted, they'd be the biggest one-year reductions in decades, legislative leaders say.

For example, they'd roll back the University of Minnesota's state funding to 1998 levels.

"That's unheard of," Wright said. "It would be the equivalent of having additional children but being asked to take care of your family with a household budget that's 13 years old."

At the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, those "additional children," are 40,000 more students the system is educating compared to a decade ago.

Wright acknowledges that higher education must respond to the deficit. "But the problem is not higher education," said the former Hamline University dean. "They are our solution.

"They are the economic engine that keeps people employed and re-educated."

For years, campuses have been scaling back administration and lopping off low-performing programs, she said.

This time, a college president shaving several more million dollars "will have to look at very high-performing programs -- programs that are at capacity, that are responding to companies' needs, that, for all intents and purposes, are healthy," she said. "We're cutting into the bone."

This week, Wright will attend conference committee work on the higher ed bills as lawmakers negotiate among themselves and with Gov. Dayton, who appointed Wright to her cabinet-level position.

Wright is optimistic.

"Maybe we need to pause for a moment," she said, "to see the people behind the dollars.

"We're talking about personnel, about course sections, about student services. I know firsthand what it will mean."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

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