Capital request is the U’s best hope

The honeymoon is over.”Beautiful U” day was nice. The calls for the Northrop Mall’s historic preservation and the bold initiatives in digital technology were great to hear. After listening to rosy forecasts and seeing shows of unity, I even started to think the Gophers might win a bowl game in a couple years.
But money talks. And the magic’s gone. Mark Yudof, this is your wake-up call.
No one was surprised last week when the Senate Higher Education Finance Division cut the University’s $249 million capital budget request in a committee meeting — that’s the sort of thing Senate committees do. But the amount cut, and the specific projects that felt the Senate ax, should give the University community pause. The loss of $80 million, much of it from the digital technology initiatives which have defined Yudof’s goals, puts more at stake than budgetary winners and losers. In this first legislative session of the Yudof era, the president’s — and the University’s — success will be determined in largely part by lawmakers’ decisions on how much they’ll spend to create the “state jewel” they claim to desire.
At stake this session is the University’s ability to compete academically in the 21st century. At stake is the state’s will to support quality higher education. And at stake is Yudof’s power to pursue the plans he was brought in to execute. The tone of the University’s relationship with the state, and thus the outlook of its fiscal health, could be determined in the next week. And that’s why it’s time for the University community to rally around its best hope for tangible progress, this year’s capital request. What happens in the Legislature in the next few days will shape life after the honeymoon — and no matter what the results are for individual initiatives, everyone will be affected.
The Senate reduction — almost a third of the University’s total proposal — came in large part from postponing the revamping of the Architecture building and slicing the digitally driven renovations of Walter Library and Murphy Hall. These items aren’t “low priority” by any means; from the start Yudof has said that every item in the capital request is on equal footing, and that nothing can be cut from it. Maybe that’s why the Senate cut what it did — no lawmaker likes to be told what to do, and sacrificing a pet project is a great way to send a message to the University about who’s boss.
DFL Senator Leroy Stumpf, the chair of the Senate Higher Education Budget Division, says it’s easier for legislators to make funding decisions when the University prioritizes its needs. “Then we can look at that and make our own judgment of what we feel is important,” Stumpf said. “In the case of the University presenting all their priorities as their top priority, it’s a little more difficult because then we … make our own choice.
“We have a very serious role to guard the state’s interest,” Stumpf said. “Obviously we want to see Minnesota move forward in terms of economic development, in terms of research and education. The most important thing in my life is my children and the children of all the people of the state.”
Stumpf has a point. The Legislature has interests, and books, to balance. Even with this year’s legislative surplus, and even though bonding bills aren’t direct cash expenditures, there are plenty of people making plenty of demands, and it isn’t possible to satisfy everyone — even a honeymooner.
So let’s consider the state’s interests. Taking a look at the 21st century, what will most likely spur Minnesota’s economic growth? Buildings? Buildings are great, but what’s inside them is even more important. As digital technology transforms workplaces, it’s important for Minnesota to lead digital development — not just for people in the proposed Walter Digital Library, but for Stumpf’s constituents in his hometown of Thief River Falls, who can use digital communication to bring a global economy to greater Minnesota with distance learning and enhanced business communication.
While Walter languishes without renovation funds — for now — Yudof’s new media initiative, as currently configured by the Senate, has only one leg to stand on. The two parts of the proposal included $9 million for renovations to Ford Hall and $9 million for Murphy Hall. Anyone who has walked through the depths of Ford will argue for its improvement, and, thankfully, its renovations are still on track. But Yudof called for $18 million in innovations that won’t happen without changes in Murphy, the University’s center for journalism and mass communication. University funding, as proposed by the Senate, leaves the job of creating a communications leader half-done.
And if you want to talk about half-done, just find an architecture prof. In a bonding bill that features a record amount of building construction, the facility for the people who design buildings could be left unfinished. Apparently, the architecture department has to spend money it already received to do half of its building renovations before it can begin the second half. Any architect, however, will tell you that construction has to be integrated and complete to be efficient. Fiscal responsibility, in this and in other cases, seems to be a case of being penny-wise and pound foolish: To shave a few pennies off a billion-dollar bill, potential long-term benefits are stifled.
The Yudof administration understands this, and so do its lobbyists. Donna Peterson, a University Relations representative who is coordinating legislative lobbying efforts, says that last week’s setback won’t affect the push for full funding. The honeymoon may be over, but the journey’s just begun. “The Senate committee was trying to meet a specific cap for funding, but the House cap should be higher,” she said. But after numerous presentations, campus tours for legislators and legislative testimony from Yudof underscoring the need to go ahead with every element of the capital request, elements of the plan are in doubt. “But we’re staying the course,” Peterson said. “We’re continuing to fight for everything, and we’re going for 249.”
Submitting the budget request as a complete, untouchable package was risky for Yudof, but it’s the kind of gamble a good leader needs to take. Legislators don’t like to swallow people’s requests whole — simple acquiescence to a proposal makes constituents suspicious. But Yudof has a few factors going for him that makes the risk a smart calculation. The state budget surplus gives lawmakers an excuse to be generous. A strong economy helps give the state a healthy bond rating, making Gov. Arne Carlson’s record request of more than $1 billion in bonding palatable. And, perhaps most significantly, Carlson’s personal support for Yudof’s package is a political plus not seen by a University president in decades. With these factors behind him, it’s important for Yudof to go for the most comprehensive plan to renew the University.
It’s tough to convince lawmakers that a quarter-of-a-billion-dollar proposal should be accepted without modification, but it’s in the University’s, and the state’s, best interests. After all, if the University can’t get full funding this year, with a booming economy, a new president and a sympathetic governor, when can it? This year’s proposal is part of a three-year plan to revive the University as an elite research institution; if the first step falters, progress stops.
As the legislative Day of Reckoning nears (House action on the bonding bill could begin as soon as Monday), it’s important for the University community to throw its weight behind the capital request. The problem with playing triage with programs and sending messages that one item is less important than another is that it plays the University against itself. Proposed cuts pose the risk of creating a “spoils watch” of people who sit on the sidelines and observe the funding meltdown when what is needed is a common effort to strengthen University programs.
Full funding remains possible. A revised state surplus estimate to be released tomorrow or Friday is expected to add hundreds of millions of dollars to the state’s financial picture; the University community needs to make sure that some of these revenues go to higher education. Within the next few days the House committee considering the capital request will meet to decide what items it wants to include in legislative negotiations on a final bonding bill. Any items cut from both the House and Senate proposals are automatically cut from any final bill — but House committee members have been more amenable to full funding, and there’s still time to sway them to support the full package.
But there’s no time to lose. The University community needs to stand up for its interests, showing the state that its investment in higher education will be well-spent. The Senate showed Yudof that the honeymoon’s over. It’s time to get to work.

Alan Bjerga’s column runs Wednesdays in the Daily. He can be contacted at [email protected]