Regents outline priorities for school year

The Board wants to discuss a M Health merger, Pioneer Hall renovations, among other things.

Kevin Beckman

Following an August goal-setting retreat, the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents emerged with four main priorities for the upcoming school year: boosting the Medical School’s national profile, enhancing the student experience, making budget cuts and increasing outreach efforts throughout the state to put more emphasis on the University’s land grant mission.

M Health and the Medical School

After nine months of talks, a merger between the University of Minnesota Physicians and Fairview Health Service — called M Health — was nixed in July when Fairview’s board of directors rejected the University’s final proposal for integration on June 29.

Regents said parties reevaluated their options, adding that conversations with Fairview over M Health represent one of the board’s top priorities for the upcoming year.

Board Chair Dean Johnson said Regents Patricia Simmons and David McMillan will lead a work group alongside University President Eric Kaler and Medical School Dean Brooks Jackson to decide the best way forward.

“What we’re trying to do is not consolidate but to integrate,” Johnson said.

Simmons said the University’s Medical School and health sciences programs are important to the state in terms of generating an educated health care workforce and medical research.

“You’ve got to be really good so you can attract and retain top faculty and students,” Simmons said. “We have to be excellent so we can compete effectively for … funding.”

The Student Experience

Regents will also discuss ways to enhance what they call the “student experience” by focusing efforts on improving graduation rates and job placement for graduates, increasing attention on mental health resources on campus and ensuring the school has sufficient housing options for freshmen.

“The student experience and student success remains the constant top priority of the board,” Simmons said. “We never take our eye off of graduation rates … [or] the incoming student body.”

Johnson said the board will also consider changes to orientation and Welcome Week programming and discuss the current state of academic advising at the school.

Pioneer Hall

Regents will vote Friday on an option to renovate Pioneer Hall, the school’s oldest residence hall, which doesn’t meet current building codes in several areas.

University staff presented the Regents with options for the outdated building in July, ranging from a $15.5 million option to fix the current building’s deficiencies to a $105.25 million option to demolish the hall and build a new one.

The University’s administration recommended a $76.2 million renovation option to maintain the building’s character and bed capacity, alongside a new $22.8 million, 850-seat dining facility that would serve all 2,800 Superblock residents.

“Pioneer Hall is a substandard building,” said Regent Richard Beeson, who said he prefers the administration’s recommendation. “My guiding principle has been to try to do buildings once and do them correctly … I think there’s some shock over the sticker price on that, but the board’s done a lot of work on the issue and I’m convinced that it’s the best way to go.”

Other regents, including Regent Michael Hsu and Regent Thomas Devine, said they would prefer the lowest-cost fixes at Pioneer, saving significant costs for building new housing in the future to increase the University’s capacity for campus living.

“If at some point it becomes clear that we need to spend a significant amount of money, I would want to spend that money on new housing,” Hsu said, adding that private housing developers look to the University to weigh their pricing.

Devine said if Pioneer was significantly remodeled with the administration’s recommended option, housing fees would increase over three to five years.

These increases would be on top of the 3.6 percent increase in Kaler’s 2017 budget, bringing room and board rates at the University to about the middle of the Big 10.

Beeson said he expects there will be a split vote on the issue.

Expanding on the state land grant mission

Johnson said the board will renew efforts this year to fulfill its land grant mission, which includes bolstering statewide agriculture research, ROTC involvement and strengthening the school’s science and engineering programs.

Regents will discuss remodeling the University’s Armory; meet with representatives from Minnesota’s agriculture industries to gather input and expand agricultural research statewide; and advocate for $40 million from the state legislature for a chemistry and advanced material sciences building on the Duluth campus.

“We want to be sure that everybody recognizes, and is aware, that this is a statewide university with research stations and … five different campuses,” said Regent Linda Cohen. “This is system-wide university.”