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Myron Frans carried plenty of heavy legislative loads while dodging political brickbats during 10 years as a top-tier commissioner in the Mark Dayton and Tim Walz administrations.

The persuasive dexterity Frans developed then has been on full display at the State Capitol again this year. Frans is now the University of Minnesota's senior vice president for finance and operations and its de facto lead lobbyist, in what is shaping up as the most consequential legislative session for the university in a generation.

The consequences are substantial for Minnesota, too. Plenty of economists have told me that as goes this state's ability to attract brainpower, so will go its performance in today's knowledge-based economy. And there's no bigger or better brainpower magnet in these parts than the University of Minnesota.

That's the connection that drew Frans to the U in 2020 after six years as state management and budget commissioner and four years as commissioner of revenue. It's the idea he's pushing hard at the Capitol, where getting legislators to open the state's well-stuffed coffers for the U is requiring a surprising amount of heavy lifting.

Frans is coming to legislators with three goals:

  • Keeping the university's hospital and medical enterprise in Minnesota hands, should the U's 26-year partner Fairview Health Services consummate a proposed merger with South Dakota-based Sanford Health;
  • Averting downsizing and/or significant tuition increases beginning next year, which will be the unavoidable consequence of a budget-blowing post-pandemic enrollment dip unless the state comes to the rescue; and
  • Catching up on long-postponed updates to facilities.

Those aren't small aims. The price the U has attached to the rescue of its hospital from South Dakota clutches is nearly $1 billion — $300 million (at most, Frans says) to take back full control of the hospital from Fairview; $650 million to transition to a new university-led medical system.

The operational funding increase the U seeks in the coming biennium is nearly $300 million. That's $97.5 million more than initially sought. The U's request swelled as student retention and enrollment fell this year, sending budgets into the red.

And the bonding wish-list for facilities comes to more than $370 million, including a pricey renovation of Fraser Hall on the Twin Cities campus to create a massive state-of-the-art chemistry laboratory.

Requests this large would have been nonstarters during the lean years when Frans was a state commissioner. They're possible now in part because of the work he did to set Minnesota's fiscal house in order, contributing to the fat $17.5 billion surplus legislators are handling this year.

But I haven't heard legislators voicing much appreciation when Frans appears before committees. Skepticism has been more common, in keeping with doubts about higher-ed costs and value that have been on the rise among Minnesotans and other Americans in recent years.

In Minnesota — a state whose prosperity relies on its well-educated workforce and industries closely tied to the U — such doubts could prove both unfortunate and ill-timed.

"This is a pivotal time for the university," Frans told me recently. "For us to maintain our stature and retain our faculty, we can't afford a misstep at this point. The competition is so keen in higher education right now. We're fighting for every research dollar, every bit of talent. We've got to keep investing in our people and our facilities, or we'll lose ground fast."

Frans is loaded these days with data describing how university education, research and outreach benefit this state. For example: the U has trained 70% of this state's health professionals; U research generated a record 241 patents and 22 startup companies last year; U outreach includes medical care for 1.2 million patients per year.

Those are numbers that ought to register with legislators. So should this: If state appropriations to the U had kept up with inflation since 2008, they would be $246 million larger this year. According to the State Higher Education Finance Association, Minnesota taxpayers' appropriations per student lagged below the national average for 20 years, from 2001 to 2021.

Lagging below the national average in higher education funding is not a plausible strategy for maintaining Minnesota's economic edge.

"We've got to help the people of Minnesota see how important this institution is to their quality of life," Frans said.

Able as he is to carry that message, Frans should not have to do it alone. To their credit, two former Minnesota governors, Republican Tim Pawlenty and DFLer Mark Dayton, have stepped up to support shielding the U's medical operation from a Fairview-Sanford merger. Their rare joint appearance March 7 before a Senate committee underscored the uniqueness of this moment for the U and for Minnesota.

Now would be a terrible time for Minnesotans to fall out of love with their flagship university. And now would be a fine time for the governor who's still in office to show the U a little more love.

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