It is disappointing that the Star Tribune Opinion Exchange section again gave Michael McNabb a platform to continue his attacks on the university’s structure and costs (“U pare: The need to cut administrative costs at the University of Minnesota,” April 7). He has published a dozen such letters in the Star Tribune since 2015.
Although his submission ran in the opinion section, many readers may mistakenly believe that this is published as factual rather than his opinion. His narrative does not reflect the university’s important work and the many roles university workers perform. It also neglects and misunderstands the administrative cost reductions we have made in the past six years.
When Mr. McNabb was a student, the state provided more than 40 percent of our operating budget. Currently it is 17 percent. Despite these historic reductions, we have made investments that delivered direct benefits to Minnesotans. A prime example: As recently as 1992, our Twin Cities campus four-year graduation rate was around 15 percent; currently it is 71 percent — the second-highest among public institutions in the Big Ten Conference. On the Twin Cities campus, our first-year retention rate is at an all-time high of 93 percent. Perhaps even more significantly, this rate for students of color is also 93 percent.
This is a remarkable transformation and speaks to the effective work of faculty and staff in improving success and quality metrics for our graduates and the degrees they hold. This was possible because of investments in academic advising, curriculum management, financial literacy counselors and other critical functions that some consider administrative, and therefore superfluous and unnecessary. In reality, these investments save our undergraduate students tens of millions of dollars in student debt because they help students graduate on time.
Additionally, the University of Minnesota has moved into the Top 10 of U.S. public research institutions as ranked by research grants. The costs to oversee and monitor basic science, medicine, engineering, agriculture and other research that drives our educational excellence and Minnesota’s economy cannot be dismissed as administrative or unnecessary.
It is easy to criticize that which you do not understand, and there are few easier targets than administrative spending in higher education. University of Minnesota administrators do many things critical to the health and well-being of the university, which is key to the economic and cultural health of the state. Jobs classified as administrative include workers who ensure the university’s nearly billion-dollar research enterprise is funded, monitored and communicated about in accord with federal and local regulations and in service to the public. They help ensure that students are supported and on track to timely graduation, and they administer the financial aid on which many depend. They help recruit and retain a diverse and talented class of students from the state and world. Many are responsible for complex and far-reaching elements of a world-class information technology system, including the obligation to maintain cybersecurity amid increasing risk and threats.
These employees also create and enable a wide network of outreach to serve all Minnesotans, from libraries, to 4-H, to coping with an influenza outbreak and ensuring public safety. And they do much, much more. We compete for the best employees with universities around the world and with local companies in Minnesota. Their salaries are set by that market for their abilities; any forthright assessment of salaries must take that hiring reality into account.
Due to increasing pressures on state budgets over the past 40 years from health care, human services, transportation, K-12 and other needs, a shrinking percentage of the state’s general fund budget is allocated to higher education. Minnesota was a Top 10 state for funding higher education at the time Mr. McNabb was a student. This is no longer the case. In fact, since 1990, investment in higher education has dropped from 14.5 percent of the state’s budget to 7 percent for the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota State system, and the Office of Higher Education combined. This is not just a Minnesota phenomenon; it is true nationwide.
We as a nation have made public higher education more of a private good than the public good it was, and administrative costs are not the primary culprit. Massive disinvestment in public higher education drives significantly the costs experienced by today’s students. This is why we are heartened to see the Minnesota House budget targets for higher education in the next biennium, and for Gov. Walz’s support for more investment in higher education and to keep resident undergraduate tuition costs down. The governor and Legislature have tough decisions on how to allocate finite tax dollars across many needs and requests. But we are grateful for their work in trying to slow — or even reverse — this 30-year trend, while keeping the university responsive, effective and a cost-conscious partner with the state.
From research and discovery to education and contributing to our statewide economy, the university’s role was, is today and always will be to advance the success of all Minnesotans. We will do this economically, prudently and with an ongoing focus on controlling costs while advancing our mission.
Eric W. Kaler is president of the University of Minnesota.