U president is pleased with the Legislature’s funding

by Howard Lestrud
ECM Political Editor

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler stopped by the corporate offices of ECM Publishers in Coon Rapids last week to say he was delighted with components of the Minnesota Legislature’s biennial budget for the University.

Kaler, meeting with the ECM Editorial Board, applauded last week’s Higher Education Conference Committee actions, which included a recommendation of a tuition freeze over two years.

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler provided some what he   called "high-touch" points when visiting with the ECM Editorial Board   recently. State funding for the University was a major part of the   discussion.  Editorial Board member Tom West of the Morrison County   Record is at left. (Photo by Howard Lestrud)

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler provided some what he
called “high-touch” points when visiting with the ECM Editorial Board
recently. State funding for the University was a major part of the
discussion. Editorial Board member Tom West of the Morrison County
Record is at left. (Photo by Howard Lestrud)

The conference committee’s recommendation was approved by both houses of the Legislature last weekend, just two days prior to adjournment.

Kaler took over the reins of the University
in July of 2011. He said the approval of the higher education funding bill marks the U’s first funding increase in eight years.

The tuition freeze was a high priority, Kaler said. The approved legislation provides the requested $14.2 million annually to freeze tuition for Minnesota resident undergraduates for two years (the 2014-15 biennium). The University’s tuition is currently $13,309 on the Twin Cities campus.

Kaler calls the University of Minnesota a jewel in the State of Minnesota. “We are very pleased the governor and the state have given us this support,” he said.

State legislators also voted to  invest $18 million annually to fund the Minnesota Discover, Research and InnoVation Economy (MnDRIVE) program, which is designed to  advance scientific research in four critical fields.

The four areas identified at the intersection of need are: 1) food; 2) water; 3) robotics and 4) neuromodulation. The last represents a growing area in the medical device industry that addresses brain disorders from Alzheimer’s disease to addiction.

Kaler is especially proud of the investment made for robotics. Minnesota has the highest per capital rate of participation in robotics for high school and pre-high school, Kaler said.

In order to receive 5 percent of its state budget allocation, the University under this new legislation must meet certain performance metrics. Those metrics focus on graduation rates, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) degrees, administrative costs and invention disclosures.

Kaler, who received his Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Minnesota, said he is very proud of the school’s standing. He said the U receives 42,000 applicants and enrolls 5,600 of that total. The average ACT by a U applicant is 27.7, he said. The University’s honors college counts 400-plus and these students can go to any university in the nation.

“We are keeping students and their talents in Minnesota,” Kaler said. Sixty-two percent of first year students are from Minnesota, he said.

The University has recently been criticized for its overload in administration and for its efficiency. He said the U’s efficiency is improving in the areas of teaching, research and service.

Kaler commented on the student debt load upon graduation at an average of $27,000. Three-fourths of the University’s graduates will have debt, he said. By freezing tuition, 10 percent of the debt is reduced, Kaler said. He said the University is the lowest four-year net cost institution  at $75,000.

The University’s administrative and professional staff represents the 22nd largest in the nation, Kalersaid. The U recently grew by 9,000 students. A campus was recently opened in Rochester. “I run a $3.5 billion enterprise,” he pointed out.

Kaler said cuts have been made. For example, he said,  the University once had 71 call centers for Information Technology and has trimmed it to 18 and soon to be one.

“Operation costs are funded at the University from efficiencies,” Kaler said. He referred to a steam power plant in the Twin Cities that saves the U $58 million.

University research staffs are often funded by sponsored dollars, Kaler said. “We need our research mission to find facts in an unfiltered and unbiased way,” he said. The control is a peer-to-peer evaluation, he said.

Kaler was asked if online education has had an effect on the University’s education system. “Most of our students were born with a smart phone in their hands,” Kaler said but he believes brick and mortar institutions will be around for some time. “I don’t think we will go out of business,” he said.

The brand of the University is centered on medical first and athletics second, Kaler said. He emphasized the importance of doing well on both fronts. “We need to be more competitive,” he said. The U has an athletic budget of $80 million.

The University is proud of its partnership with the Mayo Clinic and with Fairview, Kaler said. Fairview plans include building a new ambulatory care center.

Howard Lestrud can be reached at howard.lestrud@ecm-inc.com

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