Senator applies public service tradition to U

Coralie Carlson

As a deacon in the Roman Catholic Church, LeRoy Stumpf travelled to Guatemala and taught peasants how to farm and build houses; now University officials hope the state senator will be as benevolent toward teaching college students.
Stumpf, a Democrat for Thief River Falls, chairs the higher education committee in the Senate. His committee makes most of the Senate’s funding decisions for the University, which requested $1.2 billion for the next two years. The state is the largest funding source for the University.
The school’s budget request includes $198 million for new programs, like providing more undergraduate advisers and making seminar courses available to all freshmen.
Stumpf, wearing a space shuttle tie tack he received from astronaut Pinky Anderson, sets the tone for his committee and their funding decisions. This year Stumpf said he’s interested in fostering partnerships between the University and the business community, and advancing investments in cellular and molecular biology. Stumpf also earned a reputation as a supporter of financial aid, though Gov. Jesse Ventura hasn’t left many avenues open to boost financial aid this session.
Although the slow-spoken hobby pilot plays a major role in shaping the state’s higher education programs, he said his own college experience was unlike most.
He entered the St. Paul seminary as a sophomore in high school and studied philosophy and history as an undergraduate in preparation for the priesthood. He earned a master’s degree in theology and became a deacon before moving to Guatemala to do service work.
When he came back, Stumpf served at the St. Paul Cathedral — just a stone’s throw from the state Capitol — and then worked with Catholic Charities in Minneapolis.
Stumpf said he likes interaction with people, something he experienced both in the ministry and in public service.
But in 1972, he left his church work, withdrew his vow of chastity and married.
“My wife always says I didn’t give up the vow of poverty,” he said, chuckling. First as farmer in northern Minnesota and now as a senator, Stumpf doesn’t pull in an overwhelming paycheck.
Although he entered the Capitol in 1980, he didn’t heavily influence higher education until he started chairing the higher education committee eight years ago.
Stumpf said one of his first priorities was to work with the K-12 committee to better prepare high school students for college and make the transition “seamless.”
Now he hopes to ease the transition from college to the work force. Stumpf said he wants to increase partnerships between businesses and schools and facilitate more internship programs.
Stumpf saw the benefits of internships through his son. Tom Stumpf, 22, is a senior at Moorhead State University and earned a full-time job at Great Plains Software after completing an internship there.
Like his son, a computer science major, Stumpf also takes interest in technology. But the senator prefers implementing statewide programs to creating software programs.
Mike Wilhelmi, committee administrator, said Stumpf works hard to get technology advances out to his rural district, but he also directs attention and funds to the University.
In the early 1990s, only University faculty used the Internet, Stumpf said. But he created the Minnesota Telecommunications Commission that connected all of the state’s college campuses to the Internet — and came in below budget, he added. That led to the connection of all of the school districts and state agencies, too.
This year, the University requested $5 million for Digital Library Resources. This includes a state-wide library system housed at the University called MnLINK.
Although Stumpf is committed to increasing financial aid, student groups weren’t happy with the way he increased it last year. Facing a surplus in Pell Grant money from the federal government, Stumpf paved the way to spread the cash across all students receiving financial aid. Student groups like the University’s Student Legislative Coalition wanted to direct the money toward lowest income students.
Cheryl Jorgensen, president of the coalition, said University students benefit from either method and her organization is now looking at other plans to increase student aid.
But as long as Ventura opposes increases in financial aid beyond the rate of inflation, both groups will have to wait.