Board officials highlight higher ed’s key contributions to state’s workforce and economy

 Dr. Eric W. Kaler’s views on the role of research at the University of Minnesota will be one of many big issues today and Thursday when he returns for public forums as the Board of Regents’ sole finalist candidate to succeed Robert H. Bruininks as president.

Kaler, who received his Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the U in 1982, will be on familiar ground with that topic.

But he also may well be asked for his views on the role of Minnesota’s public higher education institutions in strengthening the state’s economy.

Clyde Allen, chair of the U’s Board of Regents, recently cited some impressive 2006 alumni statistics along those lines while speaking to the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce on the role of public higher education as a major source of a skilled workforce:

• About 300,000 of some 400,000 living University of Minnesota alumni still live in the state Minnesota, with 217,000 of them the Twin Cities metro area.

• U grads have founded 19,000 companies, employing 1.1 million people in all 50 states and several foreign countries. 

• Fifty-eight percent of the companies created by alumni are in Minnesota, generating $100 billion in revenue and employing 500,000 people.

Citing a “need to produce more education for the dollars spent,” Allen told the Chamber audience that the University system “needs to produce the same result [in the future] but we need to do it in a different way.”

Allen, citing the U’s research role, said “research really is the source of … new products, and it’s the source of manufacturing business for Minnesota.”

He also said the Regents “hope to increase research funding in the next few years” above the current $800 million budget. Allen said the U will need to look for collaboration with other institutions, citing a joint project with the University of North Dakota on food safety.

Allen believes that University research also can play a role in finding “high-value, small-weight, small-size … products that can be manufactured around rural Minnesota.”

While the Legislature used to provide $2 of state funding for every $1 of tuition revenue, that ratio has fallen to less than 1:1, Allen said, putting significant budget pressure on the U and requiring spending discipline across the system.

Allen also said he objects strongly to Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s recent assertion to “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart that online universities provided an attractive alternative to traditional campus-based learning.

While Allen described online education as “a wonderful opportunity,” he told the Chamber audience, “That’s not the kind of education that’s going to give our people the hands-on education to be a good workforce but also the kind of education they need to be a good citizen.  That needs to take place in groups.”

After Allen’s remarks, Scott Thiss, chair of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Board of Trustees, contrasted the two education systems, describing MnSCU as “the workforce education system” for the state and the University with its research work “very much an economic engine of the state.”

MnSCU educates 63 percent of the state’s undergraduates, and more than 30,000 students graduate each year from the system’s 54 campuses, he said. The majority of the state’s graduates in teaching, nursing, law enforcement, construction and general trades and business come out of the community and technical college systems.

Despite 100 percent job placement over the past several years in such technical and trade programs as welding and machine tooling, Thiss said, many programs have seen declining enrollments as high schools have de-emphasized technical education.

He called upon manufacturers around the state to help spread the word about career opportunities in technical trades and manufacturing.

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