Kaler administration still failing to include student interests in decision making

Robert Katz

Last week saw the inauguration of a new University of Minnesota president, Eric Kaler, but already there are indications that the University will continue to follow the same well-worn path.

This year, the state legislature gave the University $50 million more than the University had planned for in their provisional budget. The decision concerning what to do with the $50 million in unexpected state funding is just one example of the new administration following in the footsteps of the old one.

A news release from the University contains the following statements from Kaler: âÄúA budget is more than just numbers, itâÄôs a reflection of priorities and values. These recommendations underscore mine: to reduce the burden of tuition on students and families and to make strategic investments to drive excellence at the university.âÄù

The presidentâÄôs proposal follows the original framework outlined in the provisional budget plan adopted by the Board of Regents in June that generated one-third of the needed revenue through tuition increases and two-thirds through program and administrative cost reductions. âÄúWe asked students to help shoulder the pain of budget reductions, and it is only fair that we take a proportional share of this increase in our allocation and give it back to students,âÄù Kaler said.

The adoption of the previous administrationâÄôs distribution of costs is not indefensible. There are others in the University community who share President KalerâÄôs values, interests, and viewpoint.

But students at the University have a very different perspective, and the budget ought to reflect their values. They have reason to prefer a new deal over the status quo.

According to the Legislative Auditor, from 1993-2003 the number of administrative and professional employees at the University increased 74 percent. The Minnesota Daily reported that the number of administrators grew a further 33 percent between 2004 and 2009.

From 1993 to 2009, tuition increased nearly 250 percent. And, in a survey of University students taken in 2010, only 35 percent of students said that the school does a good job of spending on things they think are most important.

From the studentsâÄô point of view, the entire $50 million ought to go to tuition reduction. Are studentsâÄô views likely to make any difference in the UniversityâÄôs decision making?

When President Kaler was asked about criticism of the institution from within the University community, he responded: âÄúI think people have the First Amendment right to speak freely about what they believe. I think all of those discussions have to be based on facts, and frankly, theyâÄôre not always based on facts.âÄù

Certainly, the University has a legally imposed negative duty not to impede free speech. But a healthy community welcomes dialogue between different interest groups, and a university has a positive duty to foster critical inquiry.

It is only natural and almost unavoidable that the University president would share the values and viewpoint of his fellow administrators.

Unless some institutional mechanism can be found whereby studentsâÄô voices are not merely tolerated, but are integral parts of the   decision making process, the University will continue down the same old road.

Because of the UniversityâÄôs past profligacy and the present economic climate, this institution will be undergoing a radical transformation over the next few years. Where we end up at the end of this process depends very much on how we get there.

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