Blue Ribbon reports hint at future of U

University colleges have laid out their plans to deal with long-term cuts.

Senior Paul Verhelst holds a stove door that he excavated for a class while working in conjunction with the Army Corps of Engineers on Friday at Heller Hall.  Specialized programs like his are in danger of being eliminated as the University responds to long-term cuts.

Daily File Photo

Senior Paul Verhelst holds a stove door that he excavated for a class while working in conjunction with the Army Corps of Engineers on Friday at Heller Hall. Specialized programs like his are in danger of being eliminated as the University responds to long-term cuts.

Paul Verhelst had to stop buying books on ancient Egypt years ago âÄî his shelves ran out of room. He has been fascinated by archaeology since sixth grade.
âÄúIf there was anything on the History Channel or National Geographic with ancient Egypt, I was probably watching it,âÄù he said.
So when he was looking for colleges, the University of MinnesotaâÄôs program in classical and near Eastern archaeology emerged as a clear fit.
Earlier this month, the College of Liberal Arts Assembly cut that major after CLA administration prevented the replacement of a key faculty member in that department.
Luckily for Verhelst, a senior, students currently enrolled in the program will be allowed to finish their degrees.
Verhelst said he understands the University needs to cut costs but thinks of what future University students like him will miss.
âÄúItâÄôs really just kind of crushing,âÄù he said, âÄúto know that maybe thereâÄôs somebody else out there like me, from rural Minnesota, who just fell in love with archaeology.
âÄúBut now the options are going to be extremely limited.âÄù
It is likely that other small programs will face elimination as the UniversityâÄôs individual colleges fight against a sea of change in funding from the state Legislature, which is now considering a bill that would reduce its support to 1998 levels.
In late 2009, Provost Tom Sullivan ordered each college to prepare so-called âÄúBlue RibbonâÄù reports that outline where they could cut costs, boost revenues and potentially narrow or merge their operations.
The reports, the last of which were submitted in February, will be used in setting the UniversityâÄôs next budget and shaping its long-term future.
Collaboration and cutting costs
Each of the Twin CitiesâÄô colleges, or academic units, reflects a sense of what Sullivan called âÄúthe new normalâÄù of lower funding. And while science-focused colleges take a more confident tone than CLA, all are worried about the prospect of continued cuts.
âÄúIâÄôve been here 20 years, and itâÄôs hard to remember a year when the budget went up,âÄù said chemistry professor Chris Cramer, who was a member of the College of Science and EngineeringâÄôs report committee. âÄúThereâÄôs not really much left [to cut].âÄù
Cramer added that, in his role as vice chairman of the University SenateâÄôs Faculty Consultative Committee, he has heard concern from all corners of the school âÄî especially from CLA, which has the largest enrollment and comparatively little research.
âÄú[They feel] enormously under the gun,âÄù he said.
Perhaps in response to that pressure, CLAâÄôs Blue Ribbon report is the broadest of the colleges. Its 60-page effort offers reforms that include dropping programs with fewer than 10 people and a proposal to move toward more integrated, interdisciplinary majors over traditional ones.
African-American studies professor Walt Jacobs, who helped write CLAâÄôs report, said while traditional majors like English and sociology are âÄúimportant to maintain,âÄù academic momentum is shifting toward programs that, like his own, combine traditional disciplines like psychology and literature.
âÄúMedia studies, film studies âÄîthese are things that are really hot now,âÄù he said, describing the schoolâÄôs approach as âÄútrying to do âĦ a little bit of both.âÄù
Eva von Dassow, a professor of classical and near Eastern studies âÄî the program housing VerhelstâÄôs major âÄî said integrating majors as presented in the report is a financial reform, not an academic one.
âÄúThis is a PR strategy,âÄù she said. âÄúReal collaborations actually take more resources, not fewer.âÄù
CLAâÄôs tone is more direct on the consequences of cutting research. In its report, CLA says, the school faces the question of âÄúwhether [it] will have the resources to continue as a major research institution.âÄù
An elite research institution
Language in reports by colleges dealing heavily in science, technology, engineering and math âÄî or âÄúSTEMâÄú areas âÄî show greater confidence than CLA. The confidence could be due in part to the goal of administrators âÄî including University President Bob Bruininks âÄî to make the University an elite research institution and the support for expensive projects like a biotechnology corridor on the northeast corner of campus.
âÄúThe Medical School is crucial to the UniversityâÄôs research mission,âÄù said Dean Aaron Friedman.
FriedmanâÄôs tone echoed his schoolâÄôs report, which emphasized identifying âÄúwhich new areas of discovery to supportâÄù rather than potential areas to cut.
The Medical SchoolâÄôs report did, however, reference a need to narrow its mission, as well as commercialize faculty research.
The College of Biological Sciences took an ambitious tone similar to the Medical SchoolâÄôs, citing a goal to become the nationâÄôs top undergraduate program.
âÄúWe assume that the University of Minnesota will not abandon its remarkable progress in educating students in the biological sciences,âÄù the CBS report said, âÄúnor become a bystander in the dominant science of the 21st century.âÄù
But it also outlined potential mergers and revenue boosters. For example, the college proposed hiring new faculty in âÄúclusters,âÄù which would group professors by subject area, leveraging their combined work into more research activity. The report also said cluster hiring would attract better applicants because it signals the collegeâÄôs commitment to their field.
The report also outlined the prospect of merging some areas, including research institutes, to reduce costs while still researching the same subject.
Nathan Springer, a professor of plant biology, leads the Microbial and Plant Genomics Institute, which the report suggested could be merged with the UniversityâÄôs BioTechnology Institute. Springer said the University would need to study the potential benefits in much more detail before merging them.
âÄúOften from a distance, larger groups simply look at the names of things,âÄù he said, âÄúand make suggestions for what, from a distance, looks like a sensible idea.
âÄúIt might certainly have merit,âÄù Springer added. âÄúBut the actual completion of that would take substantially more effort.âÄù
One difficulty is combining the finances of two departments, since they are often funded by multiple entities inside and outside the University, some of which can have conflicting research priorities.
Several colleges, including the College of Continuing Education and the Carlson School of Management, have centralized some administrative staff by merging clerical and support staff, which once were housed in each department.
The College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences has done the same. As for academic mergers, which would combine programs, CFANS Dean Al Levine said it isnâÄôt a given budget saver.
âÄúYou have to ask the question: âÄòWhere would the savings be in doing that?âÄôâÄù Levine said. âÄúI donâÄôt move on anything that doesnâÄôt tap a benefit both scholarly and financially.âÄù
Bridging the gap
Professional staff rather than tenured faculty have also been presented as a solution to help spend less money in the first place. Colleges could save money by increasing the number of academic professionals, like lecturers and lab assistants, who are paid less than tenured faculty.
That doesnâÄôt mean professors âÄî or even deans âÄî think itâÄôs a good idea.
âÄúThatâÄôs not part of our plan,âÄù said College of Science and Engineering Dean Steven Crouch, though he acknowledged, âÄúIt was something that was floated.âÄù
Crouch said CSE employs only a few contract employees to teach specialized courses. âÄúThe prevailing view of the faculty and the departments is that thatâÄôs not a road we want to go down.âÄù
Colleges are also looking for revenue from the private sector to cover the gap left by the state. CFANS, which gets roughly a quarter of its budget from dedicated research funds by the Legislature, mentioned looking more to outside groups for funding and suggested renting out its outstate research facilities during low-use seasons.
Virtually all schools raised the possibility of increasing private philanthropy for purposes ranging from graduate research to endowed professorships.
In particular, the Law School devoted much of its report to the strategy, with plans to increase the number of alumni reunions and programming to create a sense of community among its graduates. The Law School is also looking to invite area lawyers to give guest lectures and participate in extra and co-curricular activities like moot court, in the hopes that those connections might encourage donations to the school.
CLA Dean James Parente cautioned against viewing private dollars as a cure-all for his college.
âÄúI donâÄôt think itâÄôs possible given some of the reductions,âÄù he said.
Parente said that while grants pay for research, they donâÄôt pay for equally important graduate instruction, which comes from regular revenues.
Without any apparent way to bridge the widening deficit using traditional revenue sources, each college is looking to stretch the margins on existing areas. That generally means increasing class sizes, reducing faculty and expanding course offerings.
One solution, heard in the sciences especially, is maximizing in-house enrollment by expanding course offerings that might net students currently taking a course in another college. For example, a science-based college might offer a class that meets a liberal arts requirement.
Sullivan voiced support for that strategy but said that central administration would be watching for duplication of courses across the schools.
Parente, acknowledging that CLA gets more enrollment from liberal education requirements than it loses to other schools, said that move would be an âÄúunfortunate consequence.âÄù
âÄúYou donâÄôt want each college building its own little fortress,âÄù he said.
Faculty under fire
Salaries and fringe benefits make up about 60 percent of non-grant funding at the University. That means that cutting significant costs entails cutting faculty and staff.
But because of tenure protections, administrators have to wait for faculty to retire before they can eliminate a position from the budget.
âÄúWe donâÄôt have a lot of flexibility in how we scale back,âÄù Levine said. Instead, he said they have to work through attrition, or not replacing departed professors.
âÄúThe message from [Parente] to most departments is, âÄòWeâÄôre not going to be able to hire new faculty,âÄôâÄù von Dassow said.
While they move to eliminate traditional staff, colleges are looking to expand some programs for revenue, including professionally oriented masterâÄôs degrees. Schools including CSE, CLA and CSOM floated this idea as a way to capture skilled workers looking to advance their careers
But those professional degree programs that already exist, being not central to college missions and still taking faculty time, are facing pressure. CarlsonâÄôs report stated even though the programs cover their cost and then some, they may still be swallowed up. The college has seen tenure-track faculty grow by less than 7 percent since 2004, while student enrollment has grown by 25 percent.
Other colleges expressed a desire to expand enrollment (a decision ultimately made by central administration).
Citing increased demand, Crouch said he would like to increase enrollment by 20 percent over five years through a combination of increasing admitted students and retaining recruited ones. CBS, which also highlighted strong demand, anticipates adding 225 undergraduates and doubling applicants to its graduate programs.
But those increases would demand more space, from dorms to classrooms âÄî an expansion some schools, notably CLA, which has more than 16,000 students, may not be able to handle.
âÄúIt really begins to push up against your infrastructure limits,âÄù said Parente, adding a further, philosophical point.
âÄúSometimes it can seem that the fiscal structure can work against what is good for academics.âÄù
The next stage
The Blue Ribbon reports, which were submitted for review to Sullivan in February, have been used to inform annual budget meetings between deans and the provost, which will continue through next month, which will continue through next month. Bruininks will then use them to plan the UniversityâÄôs ultimate budget.
The reportsâÄô second purpose, Sullivan said, is to inform how colleges will respond to the medium-term landscape that the reports were designed to help address and will be worked on through the summer.
Jacobs said he looks forward to student involvement and increased discussion overall in the next leg of the process. Despite the background of funding cuts, he said he thinks people will come to see the reports as a positive development.
âÄúWhen the Blue Ribbon process was first announced,âÄù he said, âÄúa lot of the faculty were like âÄòMan, why do we have to do this thing? This is going to be a waste of time.âÄô
âÄúBut as we went through the drafts and the final report came out, a lot of people became excited about the possibilities, thinking about how we can reshape the college.âÄù
The next University budget will likely go before the Board of Regents by July. By that time Bruininks and Sullivan will be gone, and the Blue Ribbon reports âÄìâÄì and the issues they raise âÄìâÄì will fall to new President Eric Kaler.