As a legislative conference committee began meeting to set state higher education funding for the next two years, University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler enlisted advocacy help this week from some seasoned advisers — his five predecessors.

The six presidents, whose service spans 41 years, didn’t disappoint a nearly full house Monday at Northrop Auditorium, lured in part by the spectacle of so many institutional CEOs on one stage. Never before in university history have so many former presidents been alive, let alone willing and able to jointly discuss problems that vex higher education.

Don’t think that the decline in support from state government that the University of Minnesota has experienced is unique to this state, said C. Peter McGrath (president from 1974-84). It’s a national phenomenon and likely to continue. An aging population is bound to shift public funding away from education in favor of health care, observed Mark Yudof (1997-2002). What’s more, Americans have been persuaded to see higher education more as a private benefit and, therefore, rightly funded by students, rather than as a public good, lamented Nils Hasselmo (1988-97).

In Minnesota, the evolution of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system has allowed the University of Minnesota to focus more on research, noted Kenneth Keller (1985-88). Its research strength is an enormous plus for this state, but the cost of sustaining a research university is higher than required for other schools — a difference often not well understood by politicians or the public, said Robert Bruininks (2002-11).

Conveying that message is vital to securing public support. So is the good news about higher graduation rates, more opportunities for undergraduate research and other evidence that a valuable synergy exists at the university between teaching and research, the presidents said.

Kaler’s predecessors wished him well this week — as do we — as he seeks an increase in state appropriations for the next two academic years. But none disagreed when Yudof said that government money is likely to stay tight, no matter how this legislative session ends. Within higher education — and especially within faculties — rethinking is needed about how best to deliver quality education, research and outreach within the constraint of budgets that seldom budge.