A poll commissioned by Minnesota Public Radio and the St. Paul Pioneer Press suggests many Minnesotans would rather hold down tuition at the University of Minnesota than get a tax cut or rebate. The poll says holding down tuition is also more important to Minnesotans than raising faculty salaries.
FORTY-FIVE PERCENT of the people who answered the poll would give priority to keeping University of Minnesota tuition increases as small as possible. That compares to 27 percent who say a tax cut or rebate is more important and 16 percent who say raising faculty salaries should be the priority.
Winston Norby of Two Harbors favors keeping tuition increases as small as possible. He's a 59-year-old retired high school teacher with one daughter going to the "U" and another who's graduated. Norby says the whole idea behind a land grant university is to encourage a wider range of students to go to college.
"If you're keeping people from going to an institute of higher learning like the U of M simply because they can't afford to go there, you may very well have somebody with an extremely adept mind, let's say, or is very good at some kind of study who doesn't get to do that and so we lose the expertise of that particular person in the workforce," Norby says.
But those who favor a tax cut feel just as strongly.
Respondent Stephen Fenske, 59, a retired garbage hauler and real estate owner from Byron, says he probably pays $40,000 in taxes per year. "Way too much for one individual," he says. But he also wants lawmakers to spend some money on U of M faculty pay.
"I wouldn't want all the (surplus) money back. I'd say take a certain percentage of our tax money back and then some of that could go up to raise the salary for the teachers up there," Fenske says.
The poll of 625 registered voters has a margin of error of plus- or minus-4 percentage points. U of M Faculty Consultative Committee Chair Fred Morrison says he thinks 16-percent support for bigger salaries is high. Morrison says while faculty have made their case for higher salaries to the administration and Board of Regents, they've not made their case directly to the public.
"That one person in six recognizes that problem without a lot of publicity about it shows that there is public understanding of the importance of that," says Morrison.
By contrast Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-Saint Paul, the chair of the Senate Education Committee, sees the 16 percent as low. She says it probably reflects the feelings of many citizens that U professors make a lot more money than they do, and don't need anymore.
"People may feel like they're not making that much money, especially if you're talking about my constituents. They would think that what the university professors make is a huge amount of money," she says.
Sen. Pappas says it's up to lawmakers to look at faculty pay as a competitive issue, and ask what has to be done to attract and keep high-quality faculty.
Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, serves on the Senate Higher Education Budget Division. He says while the poll shows a contrast between those who want a tax cut and those who want to keep tuition increases down, the Legislature doesn't have to choose one over the other.
"I recognize among my constituents a significant desire for reduced taxes and for a rebate, but I also hear a lot of support for the university and for keeping tuition low," says Kelley.
People surveyed were also asked to rate the job performance of University of Minnesota President Mark Yudof. Fifty-five percent said he was doing a "good" or "excellent" job; 17 percent "fair" or "poor," and 28 percent had no opinion.
Patty Marsicano covers higher education for Minnesota Public Radio. Reach her via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.