Now is the time to support the University

Last spring the Minnesota Legislature granted the University its largest capital bonding package in history. The vote was a ringing endorsement of our vision for the future, and a strong statement of trust in our ability to deliver.
A new legislative session will soon be upon us, and once again the University will be asking for a significant investment in Minnesota’s only public land-grant research university.
Wait a minute, you might say. Didn’t we give at the office last year? Yes, and we’re extremely grateful. But the 1999 biennial budget is equally as critical to Minnesota’s future. To understand, one must consider how the legislative budget process is critical to Minnesota’s future.
Next year’s budget is different from this year’s. Even-numbered years, such as 1998, are for capital budgets, meaning physical infrastructure — preserving older buildings and constructing new ones. Odd-numbered years, such as 1999, are for operating budgets, meaning human infrastructure — paying for programs and for the people who teach Minnesota’s daughters and sons and conduct cutting-edge research. It is “human capital” that grows Minnesota’s economy and preserves the cultural, social and physical health of our people.
Last year’s capital budget emphasized preserving our historic campus buildings and making bold new investments in molecular and cellular biology (gene therapies), agriculture, digital technology, design and new media. In next year’s request for operating funds, we build upon last year’s plan, this time emphasizing undergraduate education, the education of health professionals and more competitive compensation for the people who determine whether the University succeeds in its ambitions: the faculty and staff.
My core goal is straightforward: I want the University to offer the highest- quality, most hands-on, most humane undergraduate education of any comparably sized public research university in America. This is the University’s pact with the people of Minnesota; Minnesotans should hold us accountable for achieving it.
The heart of the plan is seminars for every entering student. These small classes of up to 20 students, taught by faculty, emphasize classroom discussion and analytical writing. To accomplish this, a goal that no Big Ten university has reached, we need to hire 100 additional faculty system-wide, while hanging on to the good professors we already have in the face of stiff competition. Such a move also will enable us to strengthen the humanities and social sciences, a key to improving national rankings.
Other areas of undergraduate improvement being targeted include enhancing academic advising by improving the students-per-adviser ratios and emphasizing more proactive approaches; improving graduation rates; expanding opportunities for undergraduates to participate in research projects alongside faculty; keeping pace with fast-moving improvements in technology; and making it possible for more students to study abroad during their undergraduate years. And, of course, building more residence halls — though students seem to like the Days Inn and the once-a-week changing of sheets!
Beyond the undergraduate experience, other areas for which we’re seeking more funding are equally critical. For example, more than 70 percent of Minnesota’s doctors, nurses and other health care professionals received their degrees from the University. The cost of providing that education keeps rising, even as funding sources keep shrinking. Uncle Sam is cutting back federal funds, and the revolution in managed care is resulting in a diminution of clinical revenues to transfer to health education. If we want Minnesota to retain its U.S. Health index rating as America’s healthiest state, we will need more support from the state, which currently contributes only 11 percent of the Medical School’s total budget.
Admittedly, dollars are not everything; the public expects and requires dedication, efficiency and creativity with whatever resources are allocated. University faculty and staff on all our campuses have done a tremendous job of improving the student experience. This year applications were up 12 percent, tops in the Big Ten, and surveys show a high level of student satisfaction. Our students were among the first to have the option of registering via the World Wide Web instead of standing in long lines. New students receive a CD-ROM welcoming kit, allowing them to access the Internet even before they come to campus. Class sizes are down. School spirit is up — who can forget our first convocation in nearly 30 years, with 3,000 students singing the Rouser in unison?
Still, we have work to do to reach our goal of offering the highest-quality undergraduate education of any large public research university in America. Our upcoming legislative request is designed to bring us closer to that goal. I invite you to look at the proposal in detail on the Web (www.umn.edu/urelate/99leg.html). Write me if you have questions at [email protected]
Finally, I invite you to contact your legislators to let them know that you support investing in public higher education in Minnesota.
Mark Yudof has been president of the University since July 1997.