Dayton, higher ed advocates talk budget cuts

President Bruininks and other state higher education leaders met with the governor to discuss proposed cuts to Minnesota colleges and universities.

James Nord

Gov. Mark Dayton and a group of MinnesotaâÄôs higher education leaders, including University of Minnesota President Bob Bruininks, discussed the historic cuts facing colleges and universities across the state at a roundtable discussion Wednesday.

Higher education faces a $306 million cut under the LegislatureâÄôs omnibus higher education funding bills âÄìâÄì nearly double the reductions proposed in DaytonâÄôs plan. The House and Senate bills will be rectified in conference committee beginning Thursday.

Over the next two years, the University would face a $161.3 million cut on the House side and a $176 million cut on the SenateâÄôs. The Senate proposal funds the Minnesota Colleges and Universities system by about $50 million more than the University.

Both bills take from higher education systems to fund the state grant program and other measures Republicans say directly benefit students.

âÄúWeâÄôre not asking for a free ride,âÄù Bruininks told Dayton during the discussion at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul. When it comes to solving the stateâÄôs $5 billion budget deficit, âÄúWe know we have to be part of the solution,âÄù Bruininks said.

But he also called the cuts facing higher education âÄúan unnecessary race to the bottom,âÄù and pointed to the benefits colleges and universities have provided to the state: an educated workforce, unparalleled research opportunities and support for private businesses.

His concerns about MinnesotaâÄôs future and the emphasis on the importance of higher education were underscored by Office of Higher Education Director Sheila Wright, MnSCU Chancellor Jim McCormick and a host of faculty members and students from systems statewide.

Many of the administrators and officials who attended the discussion have previously testified before the House and Senate higher education committees in opposition to the âÄúdraconianâÄù and âÄúsavageâÄù cuts. Some recycled the same testimony theyâÄôd previously used.

Dayton didnâÄôt expressly explain why he and Wright convened the discussion, but said after its conclusion that it served to put higher education cuts in context of the past decade. The University, for example, would be rolled back to 1998 funding levels under the LegislatureâÄôs proposals.

âÄúItâÄôs been death by 1,000 swords,âÄù said Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul. âÄúOver the years weâÄôve been cutting back and cutting back and cutting back and squeezing and squeezing and squeezing.âÄù

Dayton entered the room to cheers. It was flooded with supporters waving signs with the likes of: âÄúSupport and fund educationâÄù and âÄúYee Haw! Minnesota: Falling behind Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas in higher education funding.âÄù

âÄúIâÄôm not going to say a word,âÄù he joked. âÄúI might blow it.âÄù

The next hour and a half affirmed that students, faculty and administrators support state funding for higher education, and all voiced overwhelming support for DaytonâÄôs budget.

Bruininks said the University would raise tuition two percent next year if DaytonâÄôs proposal is adopted, contrasting with an informal agreement the University has made with lawmakers to keep tuition increases to five percent if their budget is passed.

Bruininks outlined doomsday scenarios to show the drastic consequences the Senate RepublicansâÄô cuts would have. The University could close both the Twin Cities and Duluth Medical Schools and still only make up about two-thirds of the reduction, for example.

Students who joined the discussion, including University sophomore Thomas Trehus, questioned why lawmakers are looking to students to foot the stateâÄôs bill.

âÄúWhen I see those cuts coming from the state Legislature âĦ [theyâÄôll] be most devastating to the students,âÄù he said

Many encouraged Dayton to veto the majorityâÄôs higher education proposal when the conference committee ultimately agrees on it.

âÄúThank you governor,âÄù said Pappas, DFL lead on the Senate Higher Education Committee. âÄúWe desperately need you to stay strong in negotiations with Republicans.âÄù

Dayton continued to deflect questions about what heâÄôll do when it talks with the GOP, and said he wonâÄôt comment until the House and Senate are out of conference committee.

But, like all in the room, he expressed strong support for higher education and a fear of the erosion in quality that advocates say state funding cuts, tuition hikes and skyrocketing enrollment have caused.

âÄúYou either get better or you get worse,âÄù Dayton said. âÄúThereâÄôs no standing still.âÄù