HESO to raise its visibility

by Patricia Drey

Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s nationwide search for a new director of the state agency responsible for distributing students’ financial aid ended in his own office.

Susan Heegaard, an adviser to the governor for higher education, health and human services, will become the executive director of the Minnesota Higher Education Services Office on March 1.

She will replace Robert Poch.

When the director changes, so will the position itself. Heegaard will serve on the governor’s cabinet – a change she said will give higher education a needed voice in state government.

Although there are a number of representatives for Minnesota’s colleges and universities, there has never been one representative for the common interests of higher education institutions throughout the state, she said.

It will take time and discussions with administrators, professors and students to learn what issues she will advocate, said Heegaard, who learned about her new position a few days before it was announced Tuesday.

She said she hopes the state will see revenue increases next year that can be passed on to higher education. But with increasing funds going toward entitlements and the governor’s commitment not to raise taxes, she said the state cannot assure increases.

Fears of getting stuck in the middle of budget battles between the state and schools do not plague her, Heegaard said.

“I’m not going to worry about it before it happens,” she said.

For fiscal year 2003, demand for Higher Education Services Office-administered state grants was projected to exceed funds by $9 million to $16 million, according to an office press release.

Heegaard attributed the problem to a combination of factors, including people choosing to seek education in response to a poor economy. She said by using the expertise in the state’s finance agency, the office can improve its projections to avoid similar situations in the future.

Poch, who has been the agency’s director for nearly eight years, said he did not apply for the new position, nor was he asked to leave.

“The timing was right to move on to other challenges,” Poch said.

With the variety of public and private schools in Minnesota, Poch said it has been difficult not having a common agenda for higher education in the state.

He said giving the director of the office a place on the cabinet shows Pawlenty is committed to higher education issues.

“Many other state agencies have cabinet status,” Poch said. “It’s part of a recognition that we need to have a more active relationship with the executive branch of the state government.”

The University’s associate vice president for government relations, Donna Peterson, said Heegaard was a “wise” choice for the position.

“I think she’s very knowledgeable about the University and very knowledgeable about higher education,” Peterson said.

As for Heegaard, one perk of her new position will be more regular hours than she has had in the governor’s office.

“Last year I pulled a couple of all-nighters,” she said. “I thought I left those behind in college.”