University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler asked state lawmakers Tuesday for a $147 million increase in state spending on the school, saying he was “eager to switch gears” after recent controversies and promising that no taxpayer dollars would be used to buy out contracts of the recently fired football coach or his staff.
Recently under scrutiny after a sequence of events leading to the firing of Tracy Claeys as head football coach, Kaler appeared at a State Capitol news conference to advocate for a nearly 12 percent increase to the university’s current $1.25 billion state appropriation. The GOP-led Legislature convened last week and has begun work on a new state budget to fund government and other public institutions.
“I want to assure you, and members of the Legislature and all Minnesotans, that no state funds and no tuition dollars will be used to cover the cost of our coaching transition,” Kaler said, explaining that other athletic department revenue, including media and ticket sales, will cover those costs.
“The buyouts and the salaries are a lot of money,” Kaler said. “It’s sad to say that is the cost of doing business in a big-time collegiate athletic department.”
In presenting the legislative request, Kaler said he hoped to shift attention from the football team to the “other 43,800 undergraduate students and 17,000 professional students at the University of Minnesota.”
The $147.2 million would cover three areas of priority for the U: research, student success and affordability, and what school officials labeled “unfinished business.” That includes the restoration of some health training and services and programming for a natural-history museum.
Kaler and other university officials are seeking $68.2 million to support core missions and to minimize tuition increases. More than $20 million would go toward the creation of a “Student Success Center” which would work to raise retention and graduation rates.
The university also wants $36 million to expand research efforts in cancer, the improvement of water quality and other innovations. Also on the list is $14 million to train future primary care doctors to work in underserved communities and a mobile dental clinic.
Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, said he hadn’t yet reviewed the U’s budget request in detail. But he’s eager to hear from university officials about their needs.
Nornes expects some House members will want to question Kaler and university officials about the recent athletic department controversies, in particular the amount paid to Claeys after his firing, and the salaries of new coaching staff.
“They can expect to hear questions because if that’s the position the university has — that it’s not public money or taxpayers’ money at all — I guess we’d need to see that,” Nornes said. “Whether it’s taxpayer dollars or athletic dollars, wherever they come from, I think people are still questioning the amount that’s invested here.”
He added: “We need probably a little assurance that that’s all true. I’m not necessarily doubting, but people do doubt.”
Kaler characterized this year’s budget proposal as a “forward-looking” one, emphasizing the research that the additional funding would pay for. In recent legislative sessions, the university successfully secured funding for tuition freezes and the University of Minnesota Medical School.
Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee, declined to comment.