All Minnesotans should take pride in the University of Minnesota as a world-class university. In the 2022 Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), for example, the U ranked in the top 2% in the world. The ARWU rankings are based on the quality of education, the quality of the faculty, research output and per capita academic performance. The U ranked No. 3 in the Big 10 and No. 9 in the country among public universities. Other metrics tell the same story. Research.com, for example, ranks the U’s research impact at No. 2 in the Big 10 and No. 20 in the world. The U consistently ranks among the top U.S. public universities in terms of competitive grant dollars won (now exceeding $1 billion annually) and new U.S. patents issued. We could go on.
But a public research university is not just an institution with a ranking. A university is its people. With more than 68,000 students, the University of Minnesota system employs more than 26,000 faculty and staff whose work provides a public good by advancing knowledge and learning through discovery, artistry, teaching, service and community engagement. The U’s employees carry out this mission every day in every corner of the state and across the globe. In advancing its mission, the U’s employees make an economic contribution to the State of Minnesota approaching $10 billion dollars annually, ranging from new graduates that fill skill shortages to new start-ups that solve emerging challenges.
However, the U’s ability to fulfill its mission is being eroded by an increasing inability to support its workforce. Too often hidden from public view behind headlines of regent conduct or high coaches’ salaries, this erosion threatens to diminish the institution and what it brings to Minnesota.
As with most employers, much of the U’s budget goes to compensate its workforce. The money comes primarily from state funding and tuition. For decades, Minnesota’s higher education funding has been in freefall, declining from 14.5% to 6.5% of the state’s General Fund between 1990 and 2023. Over the same period, the percentage of the U’s annual budget coming from recurring state funds has declined from 39% to 17%. Minnesota now ranks a middling No. 20 among U.S. states in per capita investment in higher education. That’s behind Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee. Meanwhile, over the past decade, the U’s average annual increase in undergraduate resident tuition was a modest 1.6%. When state funding declines, and tuition remains relatively flat, it’s the workforce that suffers. Here’s how.
The U increasingly relies on a temporary workforce of contract faculty that has increased by 50% since 2012 and now makes up more than 40% of the U’s faculty. These employees have PhDs, but they earn low wages – so low that some qualify for housing assistance – and have limited job security, often working from one short-term contract to the next. Yet, many of them do the lion’s share of undergraduate teaching in some departments. Overall, faculty salaries at the U rank near the bottom of the Big 10 conference. Some graduate students who teach undergraduate courses are paid such low wages they need food assistance to make ends meet. An alarming number of staff are currently paid 10-20% below their market value in other local industries. In 2020, as COVID-19 ravaged the economy, U employees took pay cuts that saved the institution some $40 million. This financial hit coincided with staggering and lingering workload increases to address unprecedented changes in how employees deliver on the U’s mission. Attrition and retirements have further exacerbated unsustainable workloads.
Chronic underinvestment by an institution in its people causes overworked and undervalued employees to burn out and disengage. The U competes for talent locally, nationally and globally. Increasingly, the U’s employees – from frontline employees to high-level administrators – are looking elsewhere, seeking better compensation and working conditions. To be clear, the U’s employees share strong passions for their disciplines, loyalty to the institution, and most of all, dedication to its students. But passion, loyalty, and dedication cannot pay the bills.
The U currently has visionary long-term plans for things like purchasing real estate and for renovating old buildings and constructing new ones, including recently announced plans for a new state-of-the-art hospital complex. But the U needs long-term plans that also emphasize people, not just property. We and other leaders in the University Senate are working within shared governance to develop a workforce reinvestment plan that addresses both the immediate and longer-term needs of the U’s employees. Any such plan will need University President Joan Gabel and the Board of Regents as willing partners and supporters. But most critically, such a plan will need Gov. Tim Walz and the State Legislature to recommit to supporting the U as an investment in the vitality of the state, now and for years to come.
Colleen Flaherty Manchester is a professor with the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management and chair of the Faculty Consultative Committee and Senate Consultative Committee. Mark Bee is a professor with the University of Minnesota’s College of Biological Sciences and vice chair of the Faculty Consultative Committee and Senate Consultative Committee.