In the Spotlight

News & Features
Students Rally at Capitol
By Michael Khoo
February 14, 2001
Click for audio RealAudio

Rob Eilrich, a student at Anoka-Ramsey Community College, was among those protesting the governor's higher education budget, during a rally at the Capitol on February 14.
Thousands of Minnesota students converged on the state Capitol Wednesday to protest Gov. Jesse Ventura's proposed higher education budget. Education advocates say Ventura's budget shortchanges colleges and universities, but the governor is standing his ground. He says he wants to see higher education tighten its belt before seeking new state funds.

SHORTLY AFTER TAKING OFFICE, Gov. Ventura challenged Minnesota students, saying if they were smart enough to attend college, they should be smart enough to pay for it. This year, students are returning fire. University of Minnesota student Matt Clark, president of the Minnesota Students' Association, likened the budget showdown to a weekend football game.

"It is Sunday, Sunday, Sunday and it's the students of Minnesota versus the governor of Minnesota right here, right now!" Clark roared.

The University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system are - combined - seeking close to $500 million in new funding over the next biennium. Ventura is offering roughly a quarter of that. Clark and other students worry the governor's slim budget will lead to tuition hikes, but Ventura tells Minnesota Public Radio,the gap could be closed if only college and university administrators cut wasteful spending and cut back on unnecessary expenses.

"If we're going to have a debate, I think we have to have an accurate debate."

- Mark Yudof
U of M President
"Do they have spines to make tough managerial decisions? Do they have it? Or do they simply pass it on and make the easy choice? Tell the students, 'Well, it's going to be double-digit tuition increases. We're not going to look at us at all. We're just simply going to pass it to you,'" Ventura said.

Ventura has called higher education an "endless pit that no amount of money could satisfy." But MnSCU Chancellor Morrie Anderson says over the last several years, MnSCU has tightened its belt by up to $80 million a year by shifting funds from lower priorities to more urgent needs.

Anderson, who was at the Capitol to testify before a House committee, says any more trimming will cut to the bone.

"The next cuts are either cuts in programs which then turn into cuts in access for students or asking students to be in school longer because we can't fulfill our contract with them or significant tuition increase or all of the above," said Anderson.

Anderson says adequate funding is important if MnSCU institutions are to modernize and produce graduates trained for a high-technology economy. Ventura says he appreciates the importance of a skilled workforce. But he says that doesn't mean schools are exempt from the same budget pressures the rest of the state faces.
Andrew Holmes, a student at Rochester Technical and Community College, held a sign that said, Jesse's suffering from C.R.S., Can't Remember Students

"I'm not anti-university," said Ventura. "I realize the University of Minnesota is a huge engine that drives our economy. But is it an engine that needs to consume and get only six miles to the gallon? Or should it be an engine that gets us 20 miles to the gallon?"

University of Minnesota President Mark Yudof says the U of M, also, has been busy cutting costs and reallocating scarce funds to high-technology programs. Yudof, who testified during a Senate committee hearing, says the University and MnSCU began the budget debate at a disadvantage. Yudof says other state agencies are automatically given increases to match inflation, but he says the same is not true for higher education.

Yudof estimates if inflation adjustments were automatic, the university would already be roughly halfway to its budget goal.

"If we're going to have a debate, I think we have to have an accurate debate. Minnesotans have to understand what they're spending on each item and then I'm prepared to defend each item in my budget and I'm prepared for members of the Legislature to say, 'Mr. President, that's too expensive; we can't afford it.' But we need to start to debate at the right point, an accurate point that we can agree on," Yudof told legislators.

State lawmakers seem sympathetic to those concerns. DFLers are calling for higher levels of spending on a number of fronts, and even Republicans, while praising the governor's fiscal restraint, say they hope to shift some additional dollars to higher education.