Budget shortchanges University

With Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s proposed budget now public, the true significance of the state’s $4.2 billion deficit now lies squarely before us. The proposed cuts reach far and wide and will impact the lives of many, including college students, nursing home residents, public employees, library patrons, city administrators, park enthusiasts and members of the state-paid health care system, to name a few. Beginning next week, the governor and the Legislature will try to work out a budget that puts Minnesota back on the road to fiscal recovery. As the process begins, the concerns of University faculty, staff and students must be at the center of the budget debate.

Pawlenty’s recommendation of a 15 percent tuition cap, which comes on top of eliminating $25 million from the University’s current fiscal year budget, serves to denigrate the University’s fiscal decision-making while ignoring the plight of students struggling to pay tuition. More important, the governor’s position on higher education, similar to his call for a wage freeze for all public employees and cuts to health and human services departments, seems to imply those with the least must sacrifice the most.

In an e-mail sent to students Wednesday, University President Robert Bruininks said, “As good public citizens of this state, we recognize that a $4.2 billion deficit requires all of us to rethink the way we do our work.” From this statement we can expect the University to try to contain costs, make department reductions and ask students to pay more for tuition, but just how much is not yet known. Early estimates indicate another double-digit hike could be ahead. With another major increase, tuition bills will follow students even longer after they have left the University.

Although Pawlenty’s proposed cuts to higher education were in line with the University’s expectations, much lobbying needs to be done to convince lawmakers of the University’s value to the state’s economy; the importance of allowing the University to have its hands free to address the proposed reduction in funding; and the very real effects of higher tuition on students. Faculty, staff and students must critically evaluate the governor’s proposed cuts in funding and take action to mitigate threats to the quality of their education and their post-University livelihoods.

As Pawlenty attempts to put the state’s finances in order and cure one of the most dismal job markets in Minnesota history, with threats of war, terrorism and a recession looming, he rightly asked all Minnesotans to share in the sacrifice. But what seems to be lost in the debate over how to best tackle the state’s fiscal mess while preserving the University’s educational integrity is the perfectly reasonable notion of meeting the deficit head-on. Considering all options, this includes raising taxes. Pawlenty’s dubious campaign pledge should not come at the expense of the University.