State’s colleges want to be wired

Chris Vetter

New wiring. New computers. Internet access. Online classes. University administrators tout these and other technological needs to legislators every chance they get this year while stumping for increased state funding.
In their pitches for state budget dollars, the University and the schools in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system have focused their limited time on one issue — more funding for technology. And government officials seem to be getting the picture, as legislators and Gov. Arne Carlson have also made technology a priority in their spending plans.
University President Nils Hasselmo and MnSCU chancellor Judith Eaton have attended meetings at both the Senate and House higher education committee meetings, and requested more funding for technology. MnSCU is a coalition of 54 state colleges, technical colleges and universities in Minnesota.
Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, who chairs the House Higher Education Budget Division, introduced legislation last week that would give the University and MnSCU each $40 million from the state’s general fund. The bill specifies that the money be spent strictly for the acquisition of new technology that must be student service oriented, such as improving wiring for Internet service in dorms.
It is not clear if this funding would be a part of the governor’s University budget proposal, or in addition to the budget proposal, said Marvin Marshak, university senior vice president for Academic Affairs. Carlson revealed his spending proposal for the University last week and earmarked $57.7 million for “investment in excellence” grants intended to improve technology, facilities and programs. The governor also announced during his State of the State address last month that he would like the University to become a world leader in digital technology.
Though the governor has never been hostile toward technology funding, his stance this year is certainly more favorable than in years past. For example, in 1994 he vetoed a $9.1 million supplemental budget request that included $3.5 million for the University’s Computer and Information Services. The move forced the University to consider limiting the time students could spend on the Internet at campus facilities.
The University’s current budget request calls for $95 million in funding for technology for the 1997-98 biennium. Marshak estimated if the $40 million provided by this bill is approved, the University would receive between $60 million to $70 million of its request.
Pelowski said the bill was designed based on lawmakers’ realization that continuing to update technology is important for colleges and universities.
“We know that technology is expensive, and it is always changing,” said Pelowski. “(But) the savings have been tremendous. The University’s (World Wide Web page) eliminates lines and allows students to find out about their teachers.”
The University’s Web page allows students to register online, a service that MnSCU does not yet have, but could develop with more state aid. The University’s Web page drew rave reviews from the Higher Education Budget Division when University officials gave a presentation in January on technology.
Frontier and Territorial halls are already wired for Internet capabilities, and plans for wiring the remaining dorms over the next three years are being developed, Marshak said. Wiring all the dorms would cost about $3.3 million, he said.
“Wiring dorms is important for (Internet) access,” Pelowski said.
The University might also require every student to have a personal computer by 1999, Marshak said. Requiring students to invest in such technology is important because it will be prevalent in students’ lives after college, he added.
“Technology is a crucial part of life-long education,” Marshak said. “Students need to have the technology tools to continually update themselves throughout their lives.”
Gary Ellingson, a teacher at Northwest Technical college, said online classes will also benefit many students who would otherwise be unable to continue their educations.
“The teaching students receive through the Internet is as good or even better than what they receive in the classroom,” Ellingson said.
Ellingson said Northwest Technical college, which is a member of MnSCU, already requires each student to have a laptop computer. The school leases laptops to students for $285 per quarter. “It gives them constant access to the Internet,” Ellingson added.
The technology funding bill will be heard by each house’s education committee later this month.