U relations with state are strained

by Kelly Wittman

Tensions between the University and the state government are causing concern on campus and at the Capitol, creating uncertainty about the future of state funding and the University’s independence from state control.
Strains between state government and the University showed in the 1996 legislative session, when lawmakers tied $6.6 million in funding to changes in the University’s tenure code. The tenure code forms the basis for academic research and ensures academic freedom, as well as faculty job security. The legislative action caused an outcry among University faculty members.
Although the Faculty Senate has proposed tenure revisions, including a longer pre-tenure review process and a more strict post-tenure faculty review process, some legislators say the changes aren’t enough. Last week State Finance Commissioner Laura King and Reps. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, and Becky Kelso, DFL-Shakopee, criticized the suggested tenure revisions as not enough to warrant release of the funds.
Funding concerns were also in the forefront last week when the Board of Regents heard the plan for the next University budget request. Even though the plan is still in draft form, the University is currently planning to ask legislators for more money in the upcoming session, a proposal some see as unrealistic in the current legislative climate of cost-cutting and suspicion of University financial management.
In addition to difficulties with the Legislature, the University has also wrangled with Gov. Carlson over the University’s future. Last January, Carlson told the University that he wanted his office to have a say in choosing the next University president. The governor wrote a letter to administrators in May warning them that the Minnesota Department of Finance projected a $300 million deficit for the University by the year 2000.
The governor wrote another letter last week suggesting the University pay more than $1 million in legal fees and reinstate Dr. John Najarian as a professor. Najarian has been acquitted of criminal charges in connection with the ALG drug program.
In a letter to the University regents, King said she would not release funds earmarked for the University should recommended changes go through as written in Faculty Senate proposals. The letter brought the tenure debate to a head as the University community questioned the commissioner’s qualifications to make judgements about an academic issue.
Richard Pfutzenreuter, vice president for the office of Budget and Finance, and Marvin Marshak, vice president for Academic Affairs, said they understood the law required a simple certification from the Board of Regents that changes had been made to the tenure code in order for the state to release the funds. At that point the finance commissioner is obligated to release the funds.
“The law doesn’t say the commissioner gets to make value judgements on those changes,” Pfutzenreuter said.
Rep. Tony Kinkel, a member of the University Finance Committee, said the Legislature specifically wrote the legislation tying the $6.6 million in funds to tenure code revisions at the University in order to ensure the Board of Regents made the decision when suggested changes in the code were satisfactory. King has no jurisdiction to decide when tenure changes are adequate, he said.
Although King is a state official, her decision to send a letter to the University about the proposed tenure changes was not directed by Carlson, said Brian Dietz, the governor’s communication manager.
The governor’s office does not have the power to withhold the $6.6 million from the University, Dietz said. The governor has made it clear that he would like a greater say in University affairs. However, the University is constitutionally autonomous from state control. And lawmakers don’t expect a law that would change the status of the University and give the governor greater power over the decision-making process.
“Frankly, I am sick and tired of the governor trying to run the University,” Kinkel said. “He doesn’t run the governor’s mansion very well. I sure as hell don’t want him running the University.”
Kelley said the governor already has input into the regent selection process. A Regent Advisory Committee, which is appointed by the governor, has been in place for several years. Since the committee’s beginning, there has not been a regent elected to the board who did not have the advisory committee’s approval, he said.
Dietz said it is too early to tell if Carlson will ask the Legislature to give him more control over the University. What happens this summer and fall may decide what Carlson proposes, he added.
Carlson is a big supporter of the University, Dietz said. Carlson is concerned about the direction the University is heading in the next century, he said. State funding is vital to University operations, and the governor thinks the University should have to undergo the same scrutiny other government agencies receive, he added.
The governor’s concern for the University is 100 percent administrative and financial, Dietz said. “The governor has some squabbles with how some money has been spent, such as in the Najarian case.”
Financial concerns about the University are not confined to the governor’s office. The funding woes of the University could fall on deaf ears at the Legislature this year as congressional leaders try to equally divide resources that are in increasing demand from all parts of the state.
The chances for increased University funding coming from the Legislature next year depend on what happens with state revenues and funding for K-12 education, Kelley said. The projected 1998-99 fiscal budget for the state is balanced, he added, but assumes that spending caps on primary education will stay in place. This is a risky bet, he said, since keeping the spending caps in place means a $300 million cut for school districts.
Demands from crime and social services have forced legislators to shift their spending focus, Pfutzenreuter said. “Kids failing, bringing guns to school and a high prisoner population just has more impact on the Legislature than the University.”
That’s why the University’s relationship with the governor is important. The governor is a key player in getting the University additional funding, said both Pfutzenreuter and Kelso, who serves as chairwoman of the University Finance Committee.
Kelso said she is worried about sour relations between the governor and the University. The University will be coming to the Legislature with a request for a staggering amount of funding this year, she said. “Without the force of the governor’s office to push for University funding, the legislative will is just not there.”
The three-way pull between the University, the governor and the Legislature reminds Marshak of a family. Although the intimacy of this relationship stands as a measure of the University’s success in serving the state of Minnesota, it comes with the price of family tiffs, he said.
The relationship between the University and the state is unique, Marshak said. In many other states University administrators rarely have contact with the Legislature, he said. “There is not the intimate connection between the state and the University that we see in Minnesota.”
State administrators have legitimate questions that the University should provide answers to, as was done in the letter regarding Najarian’s reinstatement, Marshak said. The nature of the relationship between the University and the state suggests communication may be the key to resolving disagreements between the institutions, he added.
“The future of the University is the future of Minnesota. If we are starved for funds, in the short term there will be bad effects, but in the long term we will undercut the state’s economic security,” Marshak said.