OPINION | Who’s dismantling the Ivory Tower?


It’s hard to find a day we aren’t inundated by the news of more financial troubles for the University of Minnesota and higher education in general. It’s hard not to feel students’ educations are being left on the bench in place of a profit-driven administration. 

It leaves us wondering if we’re getting the whole story.

In a recent public opinion poll by Public Agenda and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, 60 percent of Americans said they believe colleges act like businesses and care more about their bottom line than the educational experience of students.

For higher education, an institution seen as the foundation of America’s leadership, this is a big accusation. But are we really getting swindled?

“This is an institution with an annual budget of approximately $3 billion,” University President Bob Bruininks explained. “It should be run in a business-like way in the sense that we should use our resources prudently, wisely, efficiently and productively. And we should do so in a way that serves the educational needs and other mission-related responsibilities of the University of Minnesota.”

Bruininks epitomizes this dichotomy between a university’s educational mission and its corporation-like financial strategies. In 2009, Bruininks – one of the most powerful players in our education – was awarded Executive of the Year by Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal, an award usually reserved for high-ranking CEOs, not university presidents.

Before we make judgments on the University’s spending habits, let’s quickly review the complicated structure of public universities. Three main financial arteries feed these universities’ budgets: public funds, private funds and tuition dollars.

They have access to federal and state funds, but these funds are not guaranteed. Each year, universities must lobby these entities for funding, and lately all have seen aid dwindle.

To make up for this, public universities ask for private donations and grants from supporters, similar to nonprofits soliciting funds from foundations. Universities also depend on tuition from the “consumers of their products and services,” better known as students. So, in a sense, it is a federally funded nonprofit business. Tuition revenues have been steadily climbing – so much so in 2009 that for the first time in history, University tuition revenues outpaced support from the state of Minnesota. In this tri-fund system, when one part of the triangle falls, the other sides have to pick up the slack.

“[Costs] haven’t gone up because colleges and universities are running amuck and spending money indiscriminately,” Bruininks said. “The real cost increases, particularly if you net out the available aid for students, have come as a result of state budget reductions.”

The question is: Do university spending practices support “high-quality education?” It’s unfair to say they’re not trying.

The first step to high-quality education is access, which becomes narrower each time tuition increases.

However, Bruininks urged students and Americans to look at tuition hikes in conjunction with the money institutions spend on providing financial aid to students.

“We spend more money now helping our students with scholarships and need-based financial aid than the sum total of the money that we get through the federal government … and from the state of Minnesota,” Bruininks said, “a state that has the third most generous student aid support program in the country.”

The next step is quality and variety of programs and services offered by a university. And, unfortunately, this is in jeopardy.

Fifty-five percent of respondents in a recent Associations of Public Land-grant Universities said declines in state appropriations are harming their ability to hire and retain faculty and staff, invest in new technology, sustain student support services and maintain campus infrastructure.

The fact is, the cost of running a large public university like the University of Minnesota is not going to go down. And despite the Public Agenda Poll that stated 54 percent of respondents feel colleges could “spend less and still maintain a high quality of education,” it’s likely cuts will lower quality.

“I am deeply concerned about the notion that if we spend much less, that we can somehow weather these storms and still deliver the same quality of education,” Bruininks said.

To truly assess whether universities are spending with students in mind, let’s take a look at what students and parents really want from their education. Once, long ago, education was meant to produce a well-rounded citizen, a better-informed and knowledgeable person and one who contributed to the intelligence and progress of the nation.

According to a recent Higher Education Research Institute survey on American first-year students, 56.5 percent chose to go to college in 2009 because “graduates get good jobs” – the highest level seen since the question was included in the survey in 1983.

According to the Public Agenda poll, 55 percent of Americans believe higher education is absolutely necessary for success. This has risen 24 percent in the past 10 years, from 31 percent in 2000.

So, is a good quality education a variety of programs focused on helping one fulfill one’s human potential, or is it a set of market-based programs that promise solid jobs? We may soon have to decide. One thing is for sure: Because of the economic downturn, it is unlikely we will be able to have our cake and eat it too.

Nora Leinen welcomes comments at nleinen@mndaily.com.