U contributions cannot continue to go unnoticed

As the legislative processes surrounding state appropriations for higher education become increasingly lengthy and arduous, higher education officials seem left with little choice but to involve themselves more heavily in state politics. And while these officials become de facto lobbyists, as has been the case more and more during the past few decades, they inadvertently lend credibility to this politicization of higher education funding. After years of this reaffirmation, legislators seem to have shifted their perceptions of colleges and universities from necessities of a healthy state economy and culture to just another government agency seeking a taxpayer handout.

This shift in perception is currently threatening to become a serious danger to higher education’s future viability and relevance. Since ancient Greece, the academy has been recognized as a necessary component of society’s advancement. When the central role played by higher education is not recognized, funding for a behemoth like the University becomes little more than a convenient political reservoir, to be filled or depleted depending on the political climate of a legislator’s constituents.

And those who feel the immediate pinch of funding cuts – students – are an easy target for the redirected ire of state citizens. On the whole, student populations are more liberal, come from wealthier backgrounds and do not vote as much as the general population. And when taken as a whole, a university’s student body does not often make the evening news for its positive societal contributions; rapes and riots are far more likely to stick in the public consciousness. When these students are taken as individuals, as the sons and daughters of voting taxpayers, legislators have an out: They can increase funding for financial aid programs they seem to believe will mitigate the strain on student finances. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of that option is almost entirely negated by tuition hikes resulting from the legislature’s funding cuts to the institutions those students attend, and so the effort is wasted.

To break this cycle, which is appearing in states from North Carolina – where students are expecting a 21 percent tuition increase – to Minnesota, state legislatures must have more faith in the value and purpose of higher education. Simply put, Minnesota legislators have neither the time nor the ability to carefully comb through the University’s budget, determining how much the institution needs. They should serve as a check to make sure the institution is not radically overspending, but the modern brand of legislative budgetary micro-management is failing this state. How much money is devoted to cancer research cannot be reasonably determined by the same group of people who decide whether Minnesotans are responsible enough to light fireworks. It’s asking too much.

So they need to take what the University says with a larger grain of salt. And to do so, they need the support of their constituents. Representatives will give the University its due amount of consideration only when the people of Minnesota realize this University impacts their lives as much as a football stadium. In this case, University administrators must go beyond University President Mark Yudof’s campaign trips around the state. The University is the largest research institution in this part of the nation and one of the largest in the world. Products and advancements made here affect far more than most people realize, especially in Minnesota.

If it takes a massive public relations campaign to educate Minnesotans, so be it. But if public support does not increase statewide, and students here continue to be forced to shoulder the burden of the citizenry’s disinterest, they will find somewhere else to go. And that will be more of a burden than the currently disinterested citizenry will be able to bear.