A tripartisan commission of state lawmakers, educators and business leaders both praised and challenged the University in a report released Wednesday.
State legislators called for the report in last year’s omnibus higher education appropriations bill, which was approved during the 2001 special session.
“Essentially, the commission is saying that the University and the regents are on the right track and is encouraging us to just keep working harder,” said Provost Christine Maziar, who served as a non-voting member of the commission.
The report says the University must strive for recognition as one of the nation’s top five public research universities. Achieving that status, it says, will require “extraordinary financial support from the state and from the private sector” and “more aggressive reallocation of internal resources on the part of the University.”
“Just as the state needs to be committed to providing resources to the University, the sentiment was that the University similarly needs to be committed to seeing that the dollars are being spent wisely,” Maziar said.
Another objective, the report says, will be to strengthen the University’s undergraduate program. It urges the school to increase graduation rates and raise admission standards.
Much of the commission’s report focuses on disciplines called “centers of excellence,” in which the University has the potential to achieve high national rankings. Former University President Mark Yudof identified five such areas in 1998: cellular and molecular biology, digital technology, agriculture research and outreach and new media and design.
The commission, created by Republican state House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty, was assigned to gauge the school’s progress in those areas, as well as identify five more fields which could achieve top-ten national rankings within the next ten years.
“I was concerned if the University of Minnesota was maintaining its status in quality and excellence,” Pawlenty said, adding that by tightening its focus, the University could “do less but do it with a higher level of quality.”
Despite “great progress” with the existing “centers of excellence,” the commission chose not to recommend additional fields to pursue.
“I think the commission struggled because the scope of (the bill) was quite large,” Pawlenty said. “It was more than they could reasonably bite off.”
Instead, the report recommends to further fund existing areas in order to build on the momentum the University has already generated.
“You’ve got to finish that job before you move on to new ones,” said Douglas Leatherdale, retired CEO of the St. Paul Companies and chair of the Commission on University of Minnesota Excellence.
Leatherdale said digital technology and molecular and cellular
biology in particular will require significantly more investment.
“The University is going to have to be very focused and decide what it doesn’t do in order to do the things it needs to do,” Leatherdale said. He said he hopes the report will be useful not only for University administrators but also lawmakers.
“I hope every state legislator reads this report before they decide how to fund the University next year,” Leatherdale said. “The economic and social well-being of this state is importantly influenced by what happens at this institution, the University of Minnesota.”
Pawlenty said as an internationally renowned institution, the University needs to maintain and preserve its excellence by setting and focusing on achievable goals such as the five “centers of excellence.”
Maziar said high national rankings are important because “they really do have an impact on the kind of opportunities students have when they graduate, and it very much affects the quality of the faculty and facilities they’ll have a chance to work with as students.”