Generousfunding is key to excellence

In the 19th Century, the Morrill Land Grant Act set forth principles which form the basic tenets of the University: that it should be accessible to all Minnesota residents, and the institution should create knowledge with economic value to the state. Schools of agriculture, medicine and engineering were created, but at the same time it was assumed that the University would also teach classic education including literature, language and art.
As we approach the 21st Century, the University is still the preeminent research and educational institute in the state, but now it must fight for a share of the state budget in a very difficult political climate. In the days of less constrained spending, Minnesota decided that access to higher education was best understood as a geographic concept. Thus, past legislatures established or upgraded community colleges, vocational institutions and state colleges (now mini-universities) throughout the state. The dispersion of these institutions in many legislative districts, and the distaste of elitism that is so “Minnesotan,” make enhancing the excellence of the University a very hard sell. Given this political reality, it is somewhat of a surprise that the University does as well as it has during the biennial negotiations at the Legislature.
Gov. Arne Carlson’s 1998-99 budget calls for an increase in the University’s base budget of $116 million, about half of the regents’ request of $231 million. In reality, the governor’s recommended increase over the 1996-97 biennial budget is only $62.8 million. The difference is accounted for by the subtraction of money considered to be “one-time funding.” To be fair, the budget also includes additional increases for education technology, library systems and student financial aid that will also benefit University students.
I wish I could be more optimistic about the outcome of the forthcoming legislative deliberations and predict that we will fully fund the University’s request. I also hope that the Legislature will adequately fund the education and child care programs needed to facilitate the new welfare-to-work mandate. And I want to provide adequate health care for all, establish a working transit system for at least the Twin Cities metropolitan area, keep the environment pure and the home and workplace safe. The only way we can pay for these aspects of our quality of life is through state taxes. Politicians promising tax increases often find themselves transformed into ordinary citizens, perhaps complaining about taxes themselves, while their victorious opponent looks for the most politically palatable cuts. There is another word for the politicians who promise tax cuts without program cuts — a four-letter word — LIAR. This legislator would rather be frank with you than lie.
The governor’s budget calls for politically popular tax cuts of $535 million, more than twice the University’s request. If only he would consider education to be the same sort of investment in the future that our forefathers, the crafters of the Morrill Land Grant Act, did. They were not alone in understanding the value of an educated society. Just one or two generations ago, the GI Bill was one of our greatest national experiments with access to education. Following World War II, much of a whole generation, mainly men, got their higher education, from B.A. to Ph.D, at any educational institution in the country, public or private. These students received not just free tuition, but a stipend that covered books and living expenses, even for their young families. At the same time public institutions like the city colleges in New York were really free, with text books even available as a free loan. The country was repaid many times over, directly from the higher taxes paid by this generation of publicly educated people and from the intellectual contributions they made toward the betterment of society and a higher standard of living for all. Last year I attended a seminar on the lives of American women who have won Nobel Prizes. Each of them had attended a free public college or university.
Some experts are now predicting that most jobs in the future will not require a college education. Thus, they argue that in the future the cost of education, as well as access, will be increasingly less important. I would counter that regardless of direct occupational skills, we will need an informed and educated society in the future to solve increasingly difficult problems and to deal with the technological future we have already entered. As tuition continues to increase at rates well above inflation, without commensurate increases in financial aid, we will continue to reduce access to the University, not by academic ability, but by financial status.
Another area where funding has clearly fallen behind is our obligation to adequately support the University faculty, the non-teaching employees and the University’s physical infrastructure. Hopefully, the ill-advised excursion into tenure reform has ended, and we can move forward with the governor’s recommendation for $40 million to recruit and retain top-quality faculty. His budget cancels the 1997 appropriation to the Academic Health Center that was contingent on changes to the University tenure code and replaces it with an unconditional equivalent amount. Of course, that also means no real increases for the coming biennium. We can only hope that the University’s reputation in the academic marketplace was not irreversibly damaged by adventurous and irresponsible legislators and regents.
In summary, we need increased funding to keep tuition increases near the rate of general inflation, increased financial aid to stop the accelerating inability of poorer students to attend the University, and increased attention to the relationship between faculty pay and retention. We need to continue with the redesign of the University to make it more student-friendly and probably more focused, without eliminating a center of diversity like General College. We need extensive investment in technology and promotion of distance learning with both lectures and discussion groups in cyberspace. We need to say we appreciate intellectual excellence.

Phyllis Kahn represents district 59B, which includes the University in the state Legislature.