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The U’s Equine Center is among the 241 surveyed institutes. Like others, the Equine Center receives money from both taxes and gifts.

David Joles, Star Tribune

Under the lens: U of M reviews 241 institutes

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS and TONY KENNEDY
  • Star Tribune staff writers
  • July 31, 2012 - 12:20 AM

A months-long probe into the 241 specialty centers at the University of Minnesota finds no obvious waste but some of the centers face closure or further scrutiny.

New U President Eric Kaler launched the review in March, saying he was surprised by the large number of centers and institutes, which direct activities from the study of sexuality to experimentation with worms. He said he was "willing to bet" that some were no longer relevant.

The review found that 9 percent of the centers have closed or will close. Next, Kaler is taking a deeper look at another 9 percent marked as "needs further review," plus the 25 centers that cost the U the most.

The report found that many deans were already keeping close tabs on their centers, and in some cases had already planned closures or mergers. At least one consolidation -- within the Carlson School of Management -- was directly triggered by the review.

"The deans and colleges seem to have a pretty good handle on the relevance and the effectiveness of their centers," said Amy Phenix, Kaler's chief of staff. Still, overlapping centers could be merged and others moved.

The review showed how difficult it can be to get a handle on the workings of the $3.5 billion system. Kaler's staff started with a list of 265 centers and institutes, but 16 more popped up during the process and dozens more turned out not to be centers at all.

Closings won't save money

Of the 21 centers recommended for further review, some have gone through leadership changes or face uncertain grant support. But even if more are closed, the U does not expect to save money, Phenix said.

"I think the bigger concern is whether the money we are spending on them is being used at its highest and best value," she said.

A center or institute is a type of school within a school, or a research hub that straddles several departments. Some teach, some research and others provide outreach.

A few are famous, including the Raptor Center, which describes itself as the world's leading facility for medical and surgical care of raptors.

Others, such as the Caenorhabditis Genetics Center, are obscure but vital to scientific research. Six Nobel Laureates signed a letter last year to support grant renewal for that center, which supplies comma-sized, gene-sequenced worms to labs across the world for brain, cancer and other research.

College of Biological Sciences Dean Robert Elde, the proud parent of the worm project and six other centers and institutes, applauded Kaler for taking a critical inventory.

Some centers started with a grant, others as an attempt to nab a grant. Some help recruit faculty members, others are key in keeping them.

A review of the William I. Fine Theoretical Physics Institute noted that membership in the center was "crucial" in competing with a $1.5 million chair that Michigan State University offered an unnamed faculty member. "The university would likely not have been able to retain this outstanding and well-funded member of our faculty without the offer," that review stated.

Overlap could lead to some streamlining of centers, Phenix said. "As a lay person, when you look at a few of them, they can sound sort of similar."

There is an Obesity Prevention Center and a separate Healthy Foods, Healthy Lives Institute. A Minnesota Geriatric Education Center, plus a Center on Aging. Both a Swine Center and a Swine Disease Eradication Center.

School of Public Health Dean John Finnegan said in his review: "I hope that this process may engender some discussions about integration and merging."

A mix of funding sources

Most centers and institutes at the U strive to be independently funded by grants, gifts and fees, but partial support from tax and tuition dollars is common. The review shows that the top 25 recipients of those dollars receive more than $21 million a year in state funding and tuition.

The review collected financial information, including how well each center is using university dollars to attract outside money. A response from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs displayed the underlying tension.

The Humphrey School said that in the past few years, the school worked to relocate two centers -- the Center for School Change left for Macalester College in St. Paul (it has since moved from there) and the Center for Democracy and Citizenship went to Augsburg College in Minneapolis.

"Although the work of these centers was of high quality and consistent with the school mission," the report says, "neither of the centers had a business model that fit well within the school, and the opportunity costs of continued support were too high."

In contrast, many centers raise millions with minimal support. At the Institute on Community Integration, which addresses policies for disabled people, the U's contribution of $127,000 last year was offset by $25.3 million in grants.

The Equine Center's budget, like that of many other centers, comes from a mix. Almost 30 percent of its $4 million annual budget is derived from taxes and tuition generated from classes it teaches. Service fees make up half of the budget and 20 percent is gift money. The center for horses raised $5 million in private donations for its $15 million expansion in 2007 and has plans for another public-private facilities upgrade.

Medical School went first

In calling for the review, Kaler praised the example set by the U's Medical School. A 12-person panel checked on its 14 centers and recommended in February that two be closed and two be restructured.

The Center for Diabetes Research ought to close, the team said, citing low attendance at its symposium, an "extraordinarily meager" website, a lack of grant support and "no evidence that the [center] is taking a leadership role as a center in advancing the role of diabetes research at the U."

But the group noted that diabetes research is "important" and supported as part of a broader effort, with the Mayo Clinic -- the Decade of Discovery in Diabetes. The U also has the Schulze Diabetes Institute.

The Medical School review panel chose not to consider how much a center costs, said Dr. Mark Paller, the school's senior associate dean.

"I didn't want someone to say, look, the Medical School isn't putting any money into this, so leave them alone," Paller said. "That ignores the human resources costs, the opportunity costs of focusing on something that's not moving the field ahead."

In fact, Paller said, the reviews don't save money. The funds saved go toward another center's work.

"If our goal was to save money, we would close down all our research," he said. But this process "does tell us whether we're getting the best value for resources that are not unlimited."

Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213 Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

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