A wide majority of Minnesota officials interviewed at the annual Duluth and St. Louis County at the Capitol Days event last week said that UMD's state funding level is unfair, and oversight of allocations lies with the University of Minnesota's Board of Regents. "If you look at the University of Minnesota constitution, the University of Minnesota is constitutionally separate from state government, and the Regents run the university along with the administration," Governor Mark Dayton said at the event, "so you’ve really got to bring that issue up with (the Regents)."
The Board of Regents alone is responsible for overseeing allocations because no Minnesota statute or law dictates terms to or mandates accountability of UMN. Duluth House Representative Jennifer Schultz, also a professor in UMD's economics department, said many Regents have full-time jobs, serve without pay and get most of their information from the president's office or other administrators. They review university budgets and documents to ensure information is accurate and that there are no legal or ethical violations.
It is also their responsibility to make sure state allocations are being fairly distributed throughout the entire system, and some legislators do not have a favorable opinion of the Board's current performance in this regard.
"(The funding situation) falls on the Regents 100 percent ... They have to do a better job," Rep. Dan Schoen said.
Legislators elect Board of Regent members to six-year terms with seats coming up for election every two years. Under the current system, this is the only form of control that the legislature exerts over the UMN.
Changing this setup, or making UMN more accountable to the state, would require a constitutional amendment.
"It would be a very big deal," Rep. Schultz said of amending Minnesota's constitution. Adding an amendment requires a majority vote in the house and senate, and then a majority of voters must approve it during a general election.
"It can be done ... (but) I don't know if we have enough support to do that."
Short of changing Minnesota’s constitution other ideas have been floated that may help UMD without having to amend its constitution. Rep. Jason Metsa has suggested that taxes and fees collected from mining companies, which conduct most of their operations around Duluth and the Iron Range, be given directly to UMD to offset its budgetary issues. A similar agreement currently exists but the money is given to the UMN system as a whole, and, because legislators cannot control money after it is given to UMN, the system distributes those dollars how it sees fit.
Many legislators are hopeful that additional funding will be given to UMD this year because of a larger-than-expected state surplus. Last Friday the Minnesota Management and Budget office released a revised estimate of the state's surplus of $1.9 billion, $832 million higher than November's forecast. Rep. Schultz said one of Governor Dayton's priorities is higher education and that UMN should receive more than expected before the new budget projection. Without direct oversight, there is no guarantee of additional state money but legislators are hopeful that some will trickle down to UMD.
Duluth Representative Erik Simonson agreed with the majority of legislators interviewed for this article in that the current funding situation at UMD is unfair. He said some of the $1.9 billion surplus should be put towards ameliorating that inequity.
"Higher education needs to be one of the highest priorities on our list," Simonson said. "And if we put additional monies into higher education, we also need to make sure they are allocated fairly, and UMD needs to have a fairer share of those monies."
BY JOHN FAHNENSTIEL