U, MnSCU campaign for limited state funding

Maggie Hessel-Mial

The intoxicating smell of chemicals used daily in the chemistry and biology labs overwhelms Dennis Abernathy every time he walks into the Pasteur Science Building at Winona State University.

Abernathy, a WSU junior, is one of 1,500 students per year who must use the outdated building every day.

The ventilation system, built in 1962, draws gases from the classrooms into the hallway, where the fumes permeate the floor with their stench. Many of the fume hoods have long since broken, but due to the equipment’s age parts are no longer made to fix them.

WSU’s science building is one of the many projects the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system requested money for from the state Legislature. But with a state budget deficit of approximately $2 billion, numerous projects around the state might never get off the ground.

Gov. Jesse Ventura gave the nod for a new science building for both WSU and Moorhead State University in his capital request proposal, with a total recommendation of $135 million for the 34 campuses. MnSCU requested $250.9 million for 26 projects.

“This is a very good starting point,” said Nancy Conner, MnSCU media relations director. “But the needs are much, much greater.”

Metropolitan State University in St. Paul has never had a library. Its nearly 9,000 students have used the University’s library or public libraries since the college’s birth.

“Our students are attending the only university in the state without a library,” said John Hendrickson, director of communications and marketing.

Should legislators follow Ventura’s recommendation, the campus will soon have its first.

“Naturally everyone here is thrilled with Gov. Ventura’s support,” Hendrickson said.

Not all campuses have seen gubernatorial support. The Northeast Higher Education District in the Iron Range town of Virginia, for example, has a fast-deteriorating community college building. The fire sprinkler system doesn’t work; many of the science labs don’t have electrical sockets.

But despite these concerns, Ventura did not recommend funding for the college this biennium.

“It’s certainly difficult to support quality education,” said Mesabi Range Community and Technical College Provost Jill Peterson. “But we’re going to break our necks to make sure our students go out with quality education, because we care.”

Legislators have already taken tours of the MnSCU and University facilities, which are slated for state funds, but it will take most of the session to reach a compromise bill between the House and Senate.

Legislators say new construction could create hundreds of jobs, aiding a dwindling state economy.

Both Democratic and Republican House members expect the bonding bill to be larger than the one Ventura proposed, which could mean more projects funded in the MnSCU and University systems.

Rep. Peggy Leppik, R-Golden Valley and chairwoman of the Higher Education Finance Committee, said she wants to encourage increased funding for the Higher Education Asset Protection Renovation, a program that upgrades existing buildings for higher education facilities statewide.

“I think very high on everyone’s list of priorities is HEAPR,” Leppik said.

Ventura recommended $35 million each for the University and MnSCU.

Some in the MnSCU system are concerned with the disproportionate amount of money to the 34 MnSCU campuses versus the four University campuses, which received $85 million – more funding per campus than MnSCU.

The University traditionally receives more because of its numerous buildings and larger student body compared with many of the MnSCU campuses, which might only have one building, Leppik said.

“If you look at the University campus, particularly Twin Cities, it’s huge,” she said.

The University is much older than the MnSCU schools and therefore has more buildings in need of renovation due to their age, Leppik said.

Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, said he agreed.

“It would take Mankato, St. Cloud and a few others to equal the magnitude of the size of the Twin Cities campus. At the ‘U’ of ‘M,’ research is very competitive with other major research universities. There is a need for state-of-the-art facilities for both systems,” Carlson said. “I plan to argue for a larger bonding bill than what the governor recommended for overall needs of the state and higher education.”

Should funding be even less than Ventura’s proposal, Conner said, MnSCU will return to the Capitol to ask again for the funding.

“We can’t do more than come back in two years and try again,” she said.

Until a final decision is made, many representatives from MnSCU and its campuses plan to speak with legislators and provide information about the projects.

“We will offer legislators any and all information they need to make a good decision,” Conner said.

Students such as Abernathy won’t see the benefits of the new science building in their tenures at WSU, but he said he knows the importance it will have on the future of the science departments – both in the building’s air quality and the space constraints the students feel.

“We had a girl in one of my classes who couldn’t enter the third floor because she had an allergic reaction to the chemicals in the air,” Abernathy said.

Students now are overcrowded and in some cases must prepare their lab tests in a closet turned “prep room.”

“The size of the class is really tough,” Abernathy said. “It increases the safety hazard exponentially.”

Maggie Hessel-Mial welcomes comments at [email protected]