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U of M President Kaler pledges quick response to Legislature, outlines budget request

The university has faced continuing scrutiny since a Wall Street Journal article singled it out as a prime example of “administrative bloat.”

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler outlined the U's $1.18 billion biennial request for reporters.
MinnPost photo by James Nord

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler said Friday that his office would work quickly to respond to top Senate Democrats’ request for a detailed report of the college system’s administrative costs.

The university has faced continuing scrutiny since a Wall Street Journal article singled it out as a prime example of “administrative bloat.”

The negative publicity came at an unfortunate time — as Kaler and the university are preparing to sell an ambitious budget request to the Legislature. The proposal would trade a tuition freeze for tens of millions of dollars in higher state funding and investment.

Kaler, who outlined the $1.18 billion biennial request for reporters on Friday, said parts of the article are factually inaccurate. He offered a more detailed response to the report here.

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Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said Wednesday that he and other lawmakers take the article and the university’s response very seriously. He and Senate Higher Education Committee Chairwoman Terri Bonoff sent a letter to Kaler that day asking for an interim analysis of the university’s administrative costs by mid-March.

“We’re eager to do that,” Kaler told reporters. “We’ll have a good story to tell at that point in time.”

The university has sought an external review of its administrative costs to present to lawmakers.

DFL lawmakers have listed higher education, which has faced a significant drop in state support in recent years, as a funding priority this session. But with the furor over the university’s administrative costs — managerial waste was a popular Republican criticism last session — the state’s prized university may have trouble convincing lawmakers it deserves more tax dollars.

“That is not the place — the front page of the Wall Street Journal — where we want our flagship university, so we take that very seriously,” Bakk said. “The university’s success at the Legislature is dependent upon how they react and how they respond to the criticisms.”

What would success at the Legislature look like?

The university has requested $42.6 million in expanded funding over the biennium in exchange for a freeze on undergraduate resident tuition. It also has called for $36 million in state support for research and $1.5 million for a loan forgiveness program.

Kaler also committed the university to moving $28 million from overhead costs to “high priority activities” and meeting certain performance goals, which have been used to tie up small portions of state support in the past.

It’s unclear how the negative publicity will actually affect state funding for the university, but Kaler said he is “cautiously optimistic we will have a positive outcome.”

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“It does take time, but the legislators are smart people,” he said. “I think they’re willing to understand the problem, and not take it at face value something they read in the newspaper.”

Kaler also reviewed the university’s $173 million construction funding request, part of a potential bonding bill this session. Much of the money would go toward maintenance, but it also includes campus building renovations, laboratory design projects and a campus wellness center.

Rep. Alice Hausman, chairwoman of the House bonding committee, called the size of the university’s request “a little problematic.” She said it wouldn’t receive full funding.