A few years ago, I sent an e-mail to a University of Minnesota regent to express my concern about what appeared to be a pattern of lavish spending by the university.
My comments were triggered by the golden parachutes provided to former President Robert Bruininks and former Athletic Director Joel Maturi, the six-figure salaries being paid to legions of administrators and the seemingly unlimited budget for pricey consultants and outside law firms.
I told the regent I had had the good fortune to attend the university at a time when students could work their way through school, a quaint notion in today’s world. And I urged him to do whatever possible to control university spending — to help keep tuition in check and reduce the need for today’s students to pile up mountains of debt.
This regent responded with a brief note that he and his colleagues wanted to give administrators maximum latitude to do their jobs, lest the board stifle “innovation.” He had not one word to say about skyrocketing tuition or soaring student debt.
As a university alumnus, former adjunct instructor and a frequent (albeit modest) contributor, I have great affection for the U. It prepared me for a rewarding career and connected me with several professors who became lifelong mentors and friends. But it is an institution that seems increasingly arrogant, out of control and insensitive to the needs of students.
The latest evidence comes in published reports of the lavish, almost laughable expenses of administrators and coaches in the athletic department that were reimbursed by the university. How could any public institution justify spending:
• Nearly $30,000 in a three-year period for Athletic Director Norwood Teague to wine and dine donors, staff and others. And I mean “wine” — to the tune of almost $11,000.
• $24,444 in lodging and registration fees for women’s basketball coach Marlene Stollings and her staff to attend a coaches’ convention in Tampa, Fla.
• Nearly $2,000 to reimburse Stollings for makeup, an outfit and shoes from Nordstrom.
• $2,298.85 to transport the dog of men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino by car from Miami to the Twin Cities.
I spent more than three decades as a journalist covering government and another eight years inside of government — as a staffer of the Metropolitan Council — and I can assure you that this sort of extravagant spending is not typical of public agencies.
The Met Council had strict policies and fiscal controls in place to govern employee expenses. It rarely paid for employee meals, much less liquor, or travel to conferences outside the Twin Cities area. Employees most definitely were expected to transport pets at their own expense.
Friends who work at the U insist that the financial excesses in the athletic department are the exception rather than the rule. But I remain to be convinced. The university is a collection of powerful fiefdoms that may be ungovernable — despite the plethora of high-paid administrators. That, however, does not excuse the Board of Regents and President Eric Kaler from trying.
Just last month, the Star Tribune reported that seven in 10 of the nation’s college students go into debt to secure their diploma and that half of Minnesota’s students pile up more than $31,000 in debt (“College graduates cope with the debt that follows,” Nov. 2). The article went on to describe how recent graduates deal with their often-crushing debt payments, postponing plans to attend graduate school, buy a home or start a family.
“I went to school thinking, when I was 18, that I was going to be a lawyer when I was 25,” one recent grad was quoted as saying. “I guess I never had the full picture of what it’s going to look like with student debt.”
This is the same generation that we aging baby boomers expect to continue funding our Social Security and Medicare benefits.
Like most Minnesotans, I want to see my tax dollars and personal contributions go to the university’s core mission — providing quality education at an affordable price. If you will pardon the expression, I don’t want to see public money disappearing down a Gopher hole.
Steven Dornfeld is a retired journalist and former public affairs director for the Metropolitan Council.