Bruininks warns committee not to shortchange U, state

by Paul Sand

University President Robert Bruininks addressed a state Senate committee Thursday, warning of severe trade-offs in cutting funding to Minnesota’s higher education institutions.

Bruininks said any cuts could result in problems such as higher-than-anticipated tuition increases and trouble for the University’s top-priority programs.

In the past five years, the University has made an effort to strengthen certain programs and areas. This plan pledged to improve the University’s Medical School and to support funding digital media and molecular and cellular biology on the Twin Cities campus.

“If we cut these programs at places like the University of Minnesota to the bone, there will be real consequences,” Bruininks said.

Bruininks’ appearance before the Senate’s Higher Education Budget Division Committee marked his first as University president.

While Bruininks offered no concrete numbers on tuition increases, he said the state’s financial woes – an estimated $4.56 billion deficit – leave the University with no option but to substantially raise rates.

In November the University Board of Regents approved a 4.5 percent tuition increase for each of the next two years as part of a $96 million funding request. The move was an attempt to hold tuition increases at a “reasonable” level after students experienced double-digit increases during the past two years.

Bruininks said the University’s goal of strengthening key areas and programs could not be sacrificed in difficult financial times.

“You can’t take tens of millions of dollars out of an institution and maintain the kind of strength in research and the areas we have invested in,” Bruininks said.

He also stressed the impact the University has on the state’s economy. He said that for every $1 million spent in research funding, 39 jobs are created in the private sector.

Speaking before the committee, Bruininks and Linda Baer, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities senior vice chancellor, listened as committee members discussed alternative ways to increase state higher education funding.

Sen. Bob Kierlin, GOP-Winona, expressed interest in increasing higher education funding through charging different rates of tuition. Each student’s tuition would be determined by how much money they make.

Kierlin suggested that by charging both high-income and low-income students the same tuition rate, the state is subsidizing education for those who could afford to pay more.

Baer said the MnSCU system has no plans to enact a staggered tuition system because charging different rates would be discriminatory.

In other legislative news

A Minnesota House higher-education panel approved cutting $50 million in higher education funding Thursday. The cut will reduce the University’s state funding by $25 million.

The cut was part of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s plan to balance this year’s $356 million deficit by June 30.

University officials have said they expect more cuts in state funding as lawmakers grapple with balancing the state’s 2004-05 budget deficit.