University of South Carolina provost Joan Gabel nearly stole all of Minnesota’s higher-education show last week with her barnstorming campaign for the University of Minnesota presidency, complete with visits to all five of the U’s campuses.
That’s fitting. A sole finalist for the CEO’s position at what has rightly been called the most important public institution in the state deserves intense inspection. The Board of Regents is expected to act on her nomination on Tuesday.
Compelling though it was, I took my eyes off the Gabel charm offensive long enough last week to connect with two other new players in Minnesota higher-ed policymaking — state Rep. Connie Bernardy, DFL-New Brighton, and state Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth. They are the new chairs, respectively, of the House and Senate higher education committees — Bernardy replacing Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, because the DFL has gained control of the state House; Anderson succeeding current Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach, who resigned from the Senate after the 2018 session.
According to the Legislature’s time-honored committee pecking order, their new positions have midgrade status. The omnibus higher-education bills that Anderson, Bernardy and their committee contributors will write next year will be in the $3 billion to $3.5 billion range, neither the biggest nor the most politically potent of the session’s lot.
But in terms of opportunity to influence this state’s trajectory in the next several decades, Anderson and Bernardy are about to assume positions of considerable importance. As a pair of higher-ed elder statesmen, Robert Bruininks and Steven Rosenstone, argued on these pages on Dec. 2, Minnesota is going to need more of what higher education produces — both talent and knowledge — if this state is to stay prosperous during the next two demographically slow-growing decades.
And as the new state budget forecast shows, the Legislature will have to find ways to satisfy that dual imperative without a lot of new spending by taxpayers. The forecast $1.5 billion surplus isn’t much in a $48 billion 2020-21 budget, especially since the surplus calculus includes little accounting for inflation in spending.
The trick for Anderson and Bernardy will be to make the most of what Minnesota has already built — a major knowledge-generating research university, a far-flung talent-producing state college and university system, and private colleges that shine in attracting promising students from around the country and seeing them through to graduation.
They’ll need to help each system build its strengths while avoiding unnecessary duplication of effort. They’ll need a more rigorous “commitment to focus.” That’s a 30-year-old U of M strategic slogan whose mention might make old higher-ed war wounds twinge. The two chairs should be willing to test whether “focus” is still a fighting word.
Bernardy and Anderson get the need for clear institutional missions — or at least I think they do. They’re rookie chairmen, given to vagaries as they talk about their intentions.
Bernardy, a seven-term House DFLer, emphasized the need for more state investment in higher ed. “The state has disinvested over a number of years, especially in the 2000s,” she said. (The numbers back her up: A Demos analysis showed that Minnesota’s higher-education funding fell in inflation-adjusted dollars from $1.73 billion in 2008 to $1.29 billion in 2013.)
“We need to regain our commitment. Balancing the budget on the backs of students, colleges and universities is not going to help us in the future,” Bernardy said.
Anderson, a first-term Senate Republican, is keen to ensure that taxpayers are subsidizing the kind of education that meets employers’ needs. “We’ve got to make sure higher ed matches the expectations of employers,” he said. “The curriculum has to be more flexible, be agile for the future.”
If they put those points together — more money tied to better results — the two new chairs will be on a promising path. That idea has been employed in a modest way in the past. It deserves another look.
Since the Great Recession, Minnesota’s two public systems have taken to offering legislators a tuition freeze in exchange for more money. Legislators bit, maybe too hard. The Legislature lacks the authority under the state Constitution to set tuition at the University of Minnesota, but there’s no such bar to legislative micromanagement at Minnesota State. The result has been prolonged fiscal distress in that 54-campus system.
Minnesota State plans to come to the Legislature with a big ask and a big promise: Give us $246 million more, and we won’t raise tuition. Legislators would strike a better bargain if new funding were offered as a reward for, say, higher graduation rates in the Minnesota State system, or closer ties with local employers through work-study hybrids (what the Germans call “dual education”).
I heard two more encouraging notes from the two committee chairs:
• To her credit, Bernardy seems keen to be more openhanded in her treatment of the University of Minnesota, which fared poorly while the state House was in GOP hands. A long tradition of similarly-sized appropriations to the two big public systems gave way in 2016-17 to a $100 million advantage for Minnesota State that grew to $150 million in 2018-19.
“I believe we need more investment in the State Grant Program [which benefits low-income students in both public and private schools], the U of M and Minnesota State — not one at the expense of the other,” she said. “It shouldn’t be us versus them.”
It shouldn’t, and not just for the sake of peace in the state’s higher-ed family. Minnesota needs a lot more of the research innovation and graduate/professional education that the University of Minnesota is uniquely able to deliver. Its researchers are at work on some of the most vexing problems on this state’s horizon — the need to transition to clean energy, keep the state’s public waters clean and cure Alzheimer’s disease among them. Its medical, engineering, legal and other professional programs have the potential to attract top talent from around the world. Now is a terrible time for the state to squeeze the U.
• To his credit, Anderson wants to direct more state resources to students with limited means. In only his second month in office, he sponsored a bill enlarging the State Grant Program.
That recognizes an often-overlooked reality about state higher-ed financing: When state taxpayers send money to institutions in order to tamp down tuition increases, the beneficiaries aren’t lower-income students. The federal Pell Grant and the State Grant Program shields them from tuition increases already. It’s middle- and upper-income students who gain.
I suspect most legislators know that already. Voters should, too. If they did, politicians’ glib promises to hold down tuition wouldn’t have as much populist appeal. And Anderson and Bernardy would find it easier to spend the state’s always-limited higher-ed dollars in ways more likely to produce the results Minnesota needs.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.