Busy year confronts governing board

A multitude of challenges await University Board of Regents.

Paul Sand

Faced with a variety of controversial decisions, such as voting to participate in the Mount Graham International Observatory project and closing the institution’s presidential search meetings, the University Board of Regents has experienced a demanding half year.

The regents, who set the University’s governing guidelines and policies, are now bracing for an equally challenging six-month period.

The University will try to balance a possible $185 million state funding cut and potential double-digit tuition increase while maintaining its academic and research missions.

“We’re in some tough times, but during tough times organizations tend to perform better,” recently elected Regent John Frobenius said. “I couldn’t be more excited to be given this opportunity.”

Frobenius, along with Patricia Simmons and Clyde Allen Jr., joined the board following their legislative appointment March 3. The new regents will attend their first meetings Thursday and Friday.

The Legislature also re-elected Regents David Metzen and Maureen Reed.

Reed, who was ousted from her seat in favor of Frobenius, replaced Regent Jean Keffeler after legislators said Keffeler was a liability to the board.

Regents Richard McNamara, Frank Berman, Lakeesha Ransom and Peter Bell – who were all appointed by former Gov. Jesse Ventura – also received legislative nods.

The 12-member board, created by the Minnesota territory’s Legislative Assembly in 1851, is entrusted with the authority to direct the University. They approve long-term policies and programs, including the University’s annual operating budget. Regents serve six-year terms and are not paid for their service.

Learning to live with less

In February, Gov. Tim Pawlenty recommended the University take a $185 million state funding cut – the largest in the institution’s history. Pawlenty also cut $25 million in funding for the University’s current fiscal year. University Chief Financial Officer Richard Pfutzenreuter said recently that more University funding reductions are a “definite possibly.”

While University officials have made institution-wide reductions addressing past state funding cuts, increasing tuition is becoming a reality with the possibility of such a large cut.

In November, regents approved the University’s 2004-05 operating budget, which set a 4.5 percent tuition increase for each of the next two years. However, because of a potential loss in state funding, Bruininks warned recently of “higher than desirable” double-digit increases.

University officials said they are planning a 15 percent tuition hike for next year, which matches Pawlenty’s recommendation for the state’s public higher education systems.

University officials said the University is not legally obligated to abide by the cap, but the state’s other higher education system – the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system -must adhere to any state mandate.

Because the University was founded before Minnesota’s statehood, the officials said, the state has no governing power over the school; regents have the final say on decisions such as tuition increases.

The newly elected regents all said the University needs to balance increasing tuition to fund its mission while keeping the institution accessible to Minnesotans.

“The University is an extraordinary investment and adds such extraordinary value, but we have to ensure that it’s affordable for everyone that’s qualified,” Simmons said.

When considering upcoming tuition increases, the University must compare itself to other universities and set tuition accordingly, she said.

“This is going to take tremendous balancing,” Simmons said.

Allen said the University must also carefully consider future tuition increases and the implications for students.

“We have to look at other resources, and tuition is clearly one of them,” Allen said. “But the need for the added money needs to be measured against the ability of folks to pay.”

Frobenius said the University cannot increase tuition enough to address the funding shortfall and keep the institution affordable to the public. He said the University should focus on funding research and other areas that provide it greater economic benefit. MnSCU and private colleges could then provide the state’s undergraduate education programs, he said.

“I would argue that the (University’s) mission to educate the people of the state is shared with other organizations,” Frobenius said.

Simmons said finding new University revenue sources is a priority, and the institution must continue to follow its education, service and research missions.

“The mission of the University can’t be fulfilled if we are too narrow in scope,” she said.

Tiffs and tough decisions

In a rare public display of dissatisfaction last December, Berman, McNamara and Keffeler raised several concerns in a letter addressed to the regents and other administrators. The three regents claimed they had limited access to University officials and were denied board committee leadership positions.

The new regents said they aren’t concerned about possible rifts among board members.

Simmons said the action does not show a weakness within the board. She also said the board’s tendency to vote unanimously, even on difficult decisions, is not unhealthy.

“It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Good decisions can be agreed upon by everyone,” Simmons said.

Frobenius said he does not know if there are current policies or procedures in place for dealing with internal issues, and he said he will push for more discussion and feedback from his fellow regents on board policies and processes.

Frobenius said the regents’ recent difficult decisions on issues including the Mount Graham International Observatory project in Arizona, a joint-use football stadium with the Minnesota Vikings and closed presidential search meetings shows board strength.

“When they do those types of things, to me, the board is showing the ability to make some tough decisions,” Frobenius said.

Paul Sand covers University Board of Regents and administration. He welcomes comments at [email protected]