State funding cut will hurt U, Yudof tells lawmakers

by Maggie Hessel-Mial

University President Mark Yudof has made his message clear: The University can deal with a 5 percent, $33 million funding cut if it has to, but any more than that will impair the institution from providing quality educational opportunities and could cause tuition increases.

In the second full day of the legislative session Wednesday, House and Senate committees heard testimony from University administration and students on pending cuts to higher education and the institution’s capital requests.

“We have a tough problem in this state. We don’t see how you could balance the budget without taking from higher education,” Yudof said. “We would like the number we have to cut to be closer to $0, but I’m worried the $33 million could go up.”

The consensus among those testifying on the University’s behalf was that while the University will do its part to deal with the fiscal shortfalls, any more tuition increases would significantly hinder the students.

“We could raise tuition,” Yudof said. “But that would hurt students quite a bit.”

David Boyd, executive director of the Student Legislative Coalition, said he was concerned about the harm a cut higher than 5 percent could cause the University.

Already facing a 27 percent tuition increase this biennium, students could find a University education a lot harder to finance if the Legislature decides to cut more than $33 million, he said.

Dan Kelly, Minnesota Student Association president and a member of The Minnesota Daily Board of Directors, is a first-generation student who said he has seen his peers working long hours and taking fewer credits to make up for the increasing cost of education.

“The tuition increase has made the University one of the most expensive schools in the Big Ten,” Kelly said.

The decrease in state funding for higher education in the past few years, though difficult for the University to take, is part of a national trend reflecting a changing of national priorities, Yudof told House members.

“Thirty-three million dollars will hurt one heck of a lot,” Yudof said. “I think we’ll manage, but it’ll hurt.”

Some legislators joked about attending the University when a credit cost $15 and were surprised when Boyd told them the average in-state, full-time student pays $6,500 to attend the institution.

Regardless of party affiliation, most lawmakers said they are committed to doing their part to ease the blow of a $33 million cut.

“My concern is always access and affordability,” said Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, a Higher Education Finance Committee member. “Higher education is going to fuel our economy. The end of a recession will be spearheaded by a strong educational system.”

While it’s premature to tell how generous the House or Senate’s bonding bills will be, Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, chairman of the Capitol Investment Committee, said the committee is the most bipartisan one in the House. It will continue to gather more information on the requested funding projects.

The possibility of two bonding bills has been discussed to speed along the process of legislation.

Legislators are considering a separate bill for transportation which would include the Northstar Corridor – a commuter train from St. Cloud to the Twin Cities. But Knoblach said nothing is finalized.

The University requested nearly $240 million in building projects, but in his funding recommendations, Gov. Jesse Ventura proposed $85 million.

“If the bonding request is approved, we’ll have up-to-date spaces for students to learn, study and meet,” Yudof said. “You haven’t achieved anything at the University if you haven’t taken care of the undergraduates first.”

Steve Scherping was one of a few students who took time out of his day to watch the University make its pitch to legislators.

“The most important group to be affected by funding would be the students,” said Scherping, a computer science junior. “It’s important for students, and that’s what it’s all about.”

Yudof showed what impact the budget might have on the University and its students.

“We have a tremendous amount of momentum at the University of Minnesota,” Yudof said. “But if you step in and greatly reduce the funding and tell me I have to squeeze whole job categories and stuff like that, then I don’t think I can maintain the momentum.”


Maggie Hessel-Mial covers the Legislature and welcomes comments at
[email protected]