Range campus possible

A state representative hopes to forge a graduate mining program on the Iron Range.

by Karlee Weinmann

Gopher hockey fans can breathe a sigh of relief.

Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, wants to establish a postsecondary presence on northern Minnesota’s Iron Range, but not to confine the region’s famous hockey talent.

Instead, Rukavina said he wants to see greater use of the area’s mining resources for programs focusing on graduate study in areas of mining, metallurgical engineering and bioenergy, among others.

“I want to utilize the resources we have up here,” he said. “It’s really about the wealth we have – natural resource-based wealth.”

In a bill set for presentation this legislative session, Rukavina proposes a viability study to assess the demand of students and employers for higher education in the area, which extends from Grand Rapids to Ely.

The study would require $300,000 in state funding, and completion is slated for Jan. 15 of next year.

Representatives from the University’s Board of Regents, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities’ Board of Trustees, and the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools will meet upon the bill’s final passage to determine the exact criteria of the study.

Rukavina said plans for an Iron Range campus would follow a course similar to the University’s Rochester campus. Ideally, there would be a centralized facility, as in Rochester, with others joining to ease on-site research.

“I envision the MnSCU system cooperating with the University of Minnesota and maybe even some other private higher education facilities,” he said.

Any definitive plans, though, are contingent on the study’s findings.

Already-established research programs would provide unparalleled research opportunities, Rukavina said.

Current research in the region includes projects at the Tower-Soudan mine and the Duluth campus’s Natural Resources Research Institute mineral analysis laboratory in Coleraine.

The Soudan Underground Laboratory, housed in the mine, falls within the borders of Rukavina’s congressional district.

In 1980, physics professor Marvin Marshak began conducting physics experiments in the laboratory. Since then, the facility has become more comprehensive and renowned.

Marshak said Rukavina has been a longtime supporter of his research initiatives, but he is unsure of the feasibility of Rukavina’s plans.

“I think it is true that mining engineering programs in U.S. universities have been shutting down or downsizing,” he said. “A lot of this has to do with a lack of student interest.”

The University’s civil engineering department formerly contained a mineral engineering group which disbanded several years ago. Marshak attributed the program’s demise to low enrollment stemming from heightened interest in emerging computer-based engineering fields.

“Engineers today do computer stuff; they sit in nice offices,” Marshak said. “Mining is messy and dirty and hard physical work even for the engineers.”

Dave Kanagy, executive director of the 12,000-member Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration, said it is important for the United States to support related initiatives, like Rukavina’s, in order to stay competitive globally.

“It’s very applicable and important because there are fewer and fewer mining and metallurgy programs in the U.S. particularly, but also worldwide,” he said. “There are fewer and fewer people to do (those jobs) safely and efficiently.”

Kanagy said there isn’t enough publicity surrounding such initiatives especially since engineering programs are generally being cut, but Rukavina’s proposed campus could generate interest in itself.

“Minnesota would be somewhat unique in that area and hopefully they’d reap some reward in terms of student interest and be able to grow the program,” he said.

The bill is expected to be presented before the House next week. By the third week of May, Rukavina will know if the bill squares with the state’s idea of its future in higher education.