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Crookston Times - Crookston, MN
  • 'Bloat' criticism could hurt university at Capitol

  • University President Eric Kaler, who is scheduled to visit lawmakers on Friday, called the claims of administrative bloat "remarkably deceptive" and unfair.
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  • State budget leaders have a message for the University of Minnesota: The money won't come easy.
    The university was already facing a difficult outlook at the Capitol, where legislative leaders confront a $1.1 billion deficit, before The Wall Street Journal last month made the university a case study of administrative bloat at American universities. The paper reported the university's administration grew almost twice as fast as its student body in the last decade.
    Chairs of the House and Senate higher education finance committees and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, have all called for more scrutiny of the school's administrative costs before making funding decisions.
    That may create problems for the university this session when it requests $1.2 billion for its two-year budget — an 8 percent increase from the state's last budget.
    University President Eric Kaler, who is scheduled to visit lawmakers on Friday, called the claims of administrative bloat "remarkably deceptive" and unfair. Of some 1,000 new administrators the Journal cited in its story, at least 300 were also professors, the university said.
    Sens. Bakk and Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, asked Kaler earlier this week for an analysis on how the school pays its administrators and an external review of how its employees are structured.
    The senators set a March 15 deadline for an interim report.
    "The university's success at the Legislature is dependent on how they react and how they respond to the criticisms," Bakk said at a news conference Wednesday.
    Kaler said that report will likely find some room for improvement. But he's also confident it will portray a university that has costs in line with, if not below, other public schools nationwide. Kaler said about 9 percent of its spending goes toward administrator payroll. Of the eight Big Ten schools the Journal analyzed, the average was 8 percent.
    He called the attention to the university's administration "an attempt to misdirect public knowledge from the large disinvestment the state has made."
    The state has sharply cut funding for the university since 2008. Its $1.2 billion request this session roughly matches what it received in 2000 and 2001. Kaler will argue at the Capitol that the university has grown and excelled despite those cuts.
    Sen. Jeremy Miller, the ranking Republican on the Senate higher education committee, said he's tried for years to get information from the university on its administrative costs. He hopes the recent coverage puts pressure on the school to be more forthcoming.
    He called Bonoff's and Bakk's request "a tremendous opportunity for the (university) to become more transparent to its funders."
    In 18 months as president, Kaler said, he has cut two administrative offices, which the university estimates saved $2.2 million. The latest budget request ties about 5 percent of funding to performance incentives — like increasing financial aid and graduation rates — and a two-year tuition freeze for undergraduates.
    Page 2 of 2 - Rep. Gene Pelowski, chair of the House higher education finance committee, said he plans to analyze the university's previous budget before hearings start. He expects Kaler to come to committee meetings ready to explain administrative overhead costs.
    Pelowski made two promises: no further cuts, and rigorous hearings.
    "No more 11-page PowerPoint fluff piece," he said. "This is going to take weeks if not months to do."

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