U President not interested in defending ‘status quo’

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler’s defense of the university against charges its administration is bloated has its limits.

“I’m not really interested in defending the status quo,” Kaler said at the State Capitol on Friday (Jan. 11).

While detailing the university’s biennial budget request — the university is looking for about $43 million for an undergraduate resident tuition freeze — Kaler commented on a recent Wall Street Journal analysis of university salary and employment records that concluded the university had added more than 1,000 administrators since 2001.

Kaler disputes the conclusion, calling parts of the story “inaccurate.”

For instance, about 350 of the “administrators” cited in the newspaper analysis, said Kaler, are actually professors or associate professors.

Additionally, about half of the remaining 700 employees’ salaries are paid with non-state, non-tuition dollars, he said.

Kaler, who assumed the presidency on July 1, 2011, took the helm of an institution long criticized for being top heavy.

“I think it’s probably hard to find any university in which people will not criticize the amount of the administration,” Kaler said in September of that year

But Kaler spoke of asking lots of questions and applying “steady pressure” to make the administration leaner, more efficient.

The university has become more efficient, Kaler insists.

He cites the use of Google technology for a cost savings of about $15 million and other innovations as evidence of incremental change.

The university’s current legislative proposal includes $28 million in administrative cost savings, according to the university.

The university is complex — it digs gravel in Rosemount, sails a research vessel on the Great Lakes — and changing such a large institution takes time, Kaler explained.

“But that’s not an excuse,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, and Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee Chairwoman Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, recently sent Kaler a letter requesting an analysis of university organization.

The lawmakers want an interim report by March 15.

The Wall Street Journal article provided a “deep opening” for her committee to examine the structure of the university, Bonoff explained.

Kaler quickly agreed to provide the requested analysis, she said.

Lawmakers must steer clear of media sensationalism, stick to facts, apply their values in dealing with the university, Bonoff explained.

She spoke of finding the appropriate educational “fit” for students at an appropriate price.

Bonoff likes hearing university officials propose tuition freezes, but doesn’t buy into an equational approach — that if the state provides a certain amount of money, a certain result will occur.

“That’s a safe assumption,” Bonoff laughed when asked whether Kaler will be appearing before her committee.

Kaler cites the proposed tuition freeze as a top goal for the university.

An incoming freshman will see about $2,500 in savings over the biennium with the freeze in place, he said.

It could make the university more attractive for some students, said Kaler.

Not that the university is hard pressed to find students.

Currently, some 40,300 applicants are vying for 5,400 openings at the university.

But Kaler questions whether the state should find it acceptable that students graduate from its flagship university tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

Students pay about $13,000 a year in tuition and fees to attend the university.

The university, as part of its $1.2 billion biennial budget request, is looking for $36 million to establish a Minnesota Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy (MnDRIVE) program that would focus on four strategic areas: industry, robotics, global food supply, the advanced treatment of brain conditions.

It’s also looking for $1.5 million for a student loan forgiveness program for pharmacy, nursing, medical, dental, veterinary students agreeing to serve in Greater Minnesota.

The university’s $1.2 billion biennial budget request is the same amount the state provided back in 2001, though the university now serves 15 percent more students, according to the university.

Some 52,000 students attend the Twin Cities campus, with about 12,000 enrolled at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, about 4,000 at Crookston and Morris, and about 600 at University of Minnesota-Rochester.

The university’s 2013 capital bonding request includes about $173 million in proposed state bonding.

The bulk of the request is for asset preservation and replacement.

The universality has about 1.4 million square feet of classroom space, 10 galleries and museums, 14 libraries containing 6.9 million volumes, and 2.1 million square feet of research space and laboratories.

   Tim Budig is at [email protected]

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