Yudof, Ventura defend views on public higher ed

Josh Linehan

Editor’s Note: This is the last in The Minnesota Daily’s Price of Knowledge series investigating the rising costs of higher education.

It’s a question as old as dorm rooms themselves, bantered around among beer cans and blacklights: Would you still go to college if you won the lottery?

The answers should reveal two kinds of people: those who believe higher education is the fabric of the common good and those who see it as a means to an end – a necessary step in career advancement.

With an arduous battle over University funding at the Capitol in the rearview mirror and another capital funding request on the horizon, The Minnesota Daily sat down with Gov. Jesse Ventura and University President Mark Yudof to try to ascertain who’s winning the battle for the soul of land-grant public education.

While the debate rages nationwide, nowhere is it more focused than in Minnesota, where a pragmatic former professional wrestler argues on behalf of the common man while a blue-collar lawyer-turned-educator maintains the common man went back on his word.

There’s little common ground.

“I’m very disturbed,” Yudof said when asked about the nationwide trend away from public funding for land-grant institutions, “Because I think it is a consummate, quintessential public good. And even though you’re better off for your education, and I’m better off for mine, it’s investing in the human infrastructure of a country.

“These are the universities that gave you everything from Teflon to talking movies … And we had a great compact with the people. We would be very accessible, we would charge low tuition, we would give them a very high-quality education as undergraduates,” Yudof said.

“At the same time, we would do this highfalutin research and develop the economy and help farmers and do that. And they reneged on it, they being the people of this country,” he said.

Ventura sees a different picture.

“This is optional education. We feel that naturally, K-through-12 is required, but then higher education is up to the individual to choose whether they want to participate or not,” he said.

“I see the ‘U’ as an intricate part of the state. What we need to focus on now is making sure that we’re working hand in hand with the ‘U’ to where, when our young people graduate and go out in the work force, we want to keep them here,” Ventura said.

“Because these are public tax dollars. This is taking money from people’s wages who work, many of whom never had the opportunity to attend the ‘U’ or have the opportunity to go to higher education,” Ventura added.

Two leaders, two ideals and a public to decide.

Over the past five years, the leaders those people have elected increasingly side with the privatization approach.

Yudof pointed to former President Bill Clinton’s 1997 tax credit for tuition and President George W. Bush’s 2001 tax deduction for tuition and other expenses as examples of the federal government’s giving money directly to students instead of universities.

“If the strategy of government is to put more and more money in the hands of the students, either through Pell grants or tax credits, then the only way for the University to raise money is to get a chunk of that back,” Yudof said. “Because you can’t pay bills with scholarships. You still have to pay the professor’s salary and the energy bills.”

Ventura’s free-market sensibilities are tickled by this approach, so much so that he tried to divert more than $30 million in aid directly to students, only to be foiled by the Legislature.

“I love the idea of making higher education compete for the students,” Ventura said. “I think it’s going to make for a better higher education system. But when you give the money to the university, the student has to compete for the money from the institution. I say reverse it, but I wasn’t successful.”

Both sides claim partial victory after the funding process. The University requested $221 million in increased funds. Ventura
countered with $56 million. The Legislature essentially split the difference, appropriating $90 million in new money.

“I don’t agree that we struck out at the Legislature,” Yudof said. “We got twice as much money as the governor recommended. That’s no mean feat. I can’t call it an unbridled victory because we started so low.”

“This year they came in with a wish list,” Ventura said. “I’d love to put it this way: Do you mean if I had given them exactly what they asked for, two years from now they’d ask for zero? It’s always a case of priorities.”

All of which sets the stage for this year’s capital funding request, with one interesting wrinkle. The logjam at the Capitol meant the Legislature never got around to appointing new regents.

The job fell to Ventura, who reappointed Michael O’Keefe – his commissioner of human services – and named Frank Berman, Jean Keffeler, Richard “Pinky” McNamara and graduate student Lakeesha Ransom to the board.

Though Ventura said the picks weren’t politically motivated, he helped appoint Yudof’s bosses.

“I think I’m off to a good start getting to name five regents,” he said. “I like that, and I’m very pleased that I had the opportunity to do that when the Legislature didn’t do it. That’s a job I enjoy having put on my desk. Traditionally it’s theirs, but I think they become very political. I don’t.”

“He picked regents with a business, law, accounting orientation,” Yudof said. “Obviously that reflects his perception that we need to be held more accountable for how we spend our money.”

“You name it, we measure it,” he added. “We’re doing very well on accountability measures. But it’s my job to explain that to the governor and Legislature. In my cynical moments I think – and I’ll say this to the governor – if you don’t want to spend the money, you look for reasons not to.”

With a 13.8 percent tuition hike this year, a similar increase expected next year and neither side giving ground for the upcoming battle, the price of knowledge won’t be cheaper. On this, both sides agree.

“When we raised tuition,” Yudof said, “it wasn’t just for the fun of it or because we were greedy. But it also reinforced my notion that unfortunately, higher education is less of a public good.

“An aging population –
demography is destiny, as the saying goes,” Yudof continued, “is more interested in health care and pharmaceuticals and police protection and prisons.”

Meanwhile, Ventura maintains his priorities aren’t going to change.

“I’m sure the ‘U’ is going to come in with another wish list, and all I ask them to do is put it in order,” he said.

“You tell me what the most important things are over there,” Ventura added. “Hey, I’d love to give you all of it. But then again, I love to give tax cuts, too. And I’m not really big on socialism. Never been one of my high points.”

Josh Linehan is the Daily’s managing editor and welcomes comments at [email protected]