Ventura’s legacy ignores higher-ed

Gov. Ventura seems determined to leave physical evidence of his reign.
During the past year, the governor sent a check to nearly every taxpayer, approved a giant train connecting downtown Minneapolis to the airport and approved millions of dollars for class-size reduction, which means new K-12 facilities for tomorrow’s youth.
Given the surplus, and Ventura’s penchant for the tangible, the relatively meager capital bonding recommendations caught the higher education community off-guard. Ventura included only three of 37 University projects and four of 23 Minnesota State Colleges and Universities projects in his proposal. Even the approved projects got the shaft — only $30 million of MnSCU’s $100 million Higher Education Asset Preservation and Renewal request for repairing buildings was recommended.
But this should have been expected.
At first it might seem odd for Ventura to pass up an opportunity to literally build his legacy, but he has been equally insistent on getting rid of stuff he doesn’t like. He played a prominent, vocal role in defeating the St. Paul stadium proposal, and he quietly vetoed funding for about 50 nonprofit organizations. And eventually he wants to blow up the Senate chamber at the Capitol.
Now get ready for the governor to label anything he didn’t recommend a pork-barrel project and accuse anyone who disagrees with him of whining or being a parochial career politician looking to pig out at the public trough.
Although the University won’t come close to its 1998 bonding bonanza, we should do all right at the Legislature because of our size, metropolitan locale, prominent researchers and, yes, our nationally televised Golden Gophers.
MnSCU, on the other hand, personifies everything the governor abhors. With 36 institutions in about 50 locations scattered throughout the state — in nearly every legislative district — MnSCU can look like an army of local projects with no statewide purpose. Look for Ventura to tell advocates of these projects to take responsibility and become more self-sufficient: a stock answer he uses to dismiss anything he doesn’t understand.
However, he should understand that Minnesota is a big state. The technical colleges, community colleges and state universities that make up the MnSCU system were designed to provide a variety of educational opportunities for all Minnesotans.
“Our primary focus is to deliver quality programs in efficient buildings,” said Nancy Livingston, MnSCU director of publications and media relations. “It’s really hard to deliver a quality educational experience in a substandard building.”
Anoka-Hennepin Technical College has deteriorated so much that MnSCU officials decided to close the building. Even though the programs will move to neighboring institutions less than 10 miles away, Anoka-Hennepin’s closing prompted action.
A letter in the Minneapolis Star Tribune explained the cumbersome geography that makes the neighboring institutions difficult to access. More importantly, about 200 people attended a hearing to keep Anoka-Hennepin open because they believed the intangible benefits of its presence were a community asset.
“I can make a case for every school in the state and how it’s serving the community to the point where the money the state puts in comes back three-fold,” Livingston said.
Many scholars concur, but aside from getting a better job and paying more taxes, the value of higher education is not readily obvious. In “Investment in learning: the individual and social value of American higher education,” economist Howard R. Bowen argues convincingly that college graduates get better jobs, become better citizens, are more compassionate, make better consumer decisions and have a better quality of life than those without degrees. And, he adds, these individual advantages indirectly help society in innumerable ways that cannot be easily quantified.
However, theories regarding the ethereal benefits of education don’t impress Ventura.
If he turned his head eastward, he would be impressed with Metropolitan State University. Located a stone’s throw from the governor’s office on St. Paul’s East Side (with a campus in Minneapolis and classes in various places throughout the metro), Metro State has helped the community for almost 30 years.
Founded in 1972 on a $250,000 grant, Metro State became the only public institution in the region, besides the University, for those seeking a bachelor’s degree. Holding classes primarily at night in storefronts and other odd venues, it accommodated part-time working students well; today about 80 percent of its 8,500 students are part time. In 1987, Metro State established its permanent residence and has established strong neighborhood ties.
The small campus hosts neighborhood events. It provides community-based internships that get college students involved with neighborhood organizations and into Dayton’s Bluff elementary school to help kids. Public officials, speakers, authors and others use the Great Hall’s beautiful atrium for events that never would have come anywhere near the neighborhood in past years. The list goes on and on.
But none of this has come easily. Plans for a permanent Minneapolis campus have been repeatedly scuttled. The Legislature mandated that Metro State transform from a two-year, upper-division school to a four-year university in the mid-1990s, yet provided no funds to do so. Therefore, tuition hikes paid for the new departments.
Former Gov. Arne Carlson even vetoed planning money for a university library, delaying that project.
Now plans are in place and Metro State wants to build the library, which ranked sixth on MnSCU’s bonding request. It will house a branch of the St. Paul Public Library to serve the community. Local foundations have acknowledged and contributed to this worthwhile effort.
A similar case can be made for all higher-education projects. But most of them don’t make the cut. By delaying or ignoring these bonding projects, Ventura is passively endorsing closing more campuses. If he waits long enough, buildings will deteriorate like Anoka-Hennepin or become too rat-infested like the University’s Art Building for anyone to use.
As students, we must urge our representatives to submit a beefier, yet veto-proof, higher-education bonding package. Ventura likes to say that you can’t legislate against stupidity. He’s right. But if he gets his way with the higher-education package, there will be little left for lawmakers to do.
Ed Day’s column appears on alternate Thursdays. He welcomes comments to [email protected] Send letters to the editor to [email protected]