It was pleading time for the University of Minnesota Thursday before the House-Senate conference committee assigned to shape the bill dispensing state funds to higher education in the coming two academic years.
President Eric Kaler renewed his call for enough funding to extend the tuition freeze that's been in place since fall 2013. Student Association leader Ryan Olson reminded legislators that for him and thousands of others, higher tuition means larger student loan debts. Vice Dean Tucker LeBien said earmarking new funds for the Medical School would bring Minnesotans more cures and longer, healthier lives. GOP Sen. Carla Nelson of Rochester added a pitch for more funds to battle Alzheimer's Disease, a scourge that will become dramatically more expensive soon if research does not defeat it.
The university dominated the crowded hearing because it's at greater risk than the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) as the House and Senate versions of higher ed bills are reconciled. Both bills offer funding increases to MnSCU, and the Senate provides an additional $85 million to the University of Minnesota. But the GOP-controlled House would send no new money to the university in the next two years, save for a few million dollars earmarked for particular projects on campuses in Morris and Crookston.
If the Legislature's final bill follows the House's lead and funds favored programs while skimping on systemwide support, the university's governing board will confront a dilemma. The State Constitution grants autonomy to the Board of Regents to govern the University of Minnesota. The board cannot compel the Legislature to send it resources. But the Legislature is legally limited in the extent to which it can direct how those resources are spent. Will the regents allow the Legislature to play favorites among university programs?
University officials know better than to bite the hands that feed their institution. They've cooperated with past legislative efforts to prioritize funding and to use state dollars as incentives for performance. They've been sounding cooperative notes at the Capitol all year, Thursday's hearing included. Left unspoken was this reality: A state funding scheme that tries to prop up a few programs while squeezing the whole institution is bound to chill the regents' cooperative spirit, and could lead to a surprising show of independence.