Students pitch cost-cutting ideas

The winning idea to cut costs at the U will earn $1,500 in prize money in February.

Haley Madderom

Nathan Shrader says he knows how to save the University of Minnesota money. His plan: reduce its heating bill.

The management senior said a new company called 75F could save the University millions of dollars by installing a heating system that recycles air and reduces energy consumption — one of many cost-cutting ideas students are proposing as part of a contest that aims to trim the institution’s spending.

“It’s taking different processes that haven’t changed for decades and revamping them to cut significant costs,” Shrader said.

The student-run innovation group Co-Lab and the Minnesota Student Association are offering a $1,500 reward to the student who can submit the most creative and feasible option for saving University funds. The contest, dubbed OPEX, is designed to help students contribute to University President Eric Kaler’s “operational excellence” initiative to slash $90 million in administrative spending by 2019.

“Everyone has a role to play in Operational Excellence,” Kaler said in an email statement. “This competition, created and executed by our students, is an innovative way to advance a shared goal.”

Any University student can post an idea or contribute by commenting and voting on other students’ proposals, said Co-Lab Director Martha Radtke.

Based on students’ “up” and “down” votes, the two student groups will choose finalists on Jan. 19. Faculty specialists and the Co-Lab team will then help them develop their ideas before the students present to a final panel of judges Feb. 19. Shrader’s idea is currently in second place on the student-run forum called The Echo Spot.

Ideas must be designed to optimally reduce waste, whether that means environmental detriment, unnecessary costs or excess time allocated to menial tasks that keep the University running, Radtke said.

“To run a university of this size, it takes a lot of money, and unfortunately a lot of this money … has to be spent doing things that [don’t] really add value,” she said. “If we can heat a building cheaper, that means that we can take that money and pump it into research.”

Student proposals include implementing energy-efficient building strategies, developing a University navigation app and focusing on native plant species for University landscaping.

Although many of the ideas may not make up a large part of the total $90 million in savings Kaler is calling for in his recent cost-cutting initiative, Radtke said, they could still help improve the University community or make it more efficient.

As a way to control the cost of attendance, MSA has also advocated at the state Capitol for a tuition freeze, said John Reichl, the group’s vice president. But he said targeting smaller University expenses is another way to address cost spikes.

“It is going to be a lot of small solutions added together, as opposed to one big swipe,” he said.

MSA will support students by recruiting top administrators to be involved with the competition, Reichl said.

Capital Planning and Project Management will be an important partner, Radtke said, since it can implement student ideas into the University’s long-term plans.

To Shrader and other students, the competition is an incentive to affect University policy.

“What’s cool about this contest is that it connects … people with ideas to the people who have influence,” he said.