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University regents focus on efficient fund use

Steve Sviggum of Kenyon poses with Minnesota Chief Justice Lorie Gildea Thursday after he became a University of Minnesota regent. Submitted Photo

MINNEAPOOLIS -- New faces joined veterans on the University of Minnesota Board of Regents Thursday, bringing concerns about tuition and accountability.

They arrived at a time when the chairman of the board said the university is going through many changes.

Board Chairman Clyde Allen of Moorhead said changes include figuring out how to deal with funding cuts and planning for President-designee Eric Kaler to replace Robert Bruininks in July.

Allen said he thinks that in recent years the university has done a good job of raising its graduation rates and increasing competition among incoming freshmen. But he acknowledged that the university must continue working to find other sources of revenue to offset decreases in funding.

Three new regents from outside the Twin Cities joined the board Thursday: David McMillan of Duluth, executive vice president of Minnesota Power, and former state Reps. Steve Sviggum of Kenyon and Laura Brod of New Prague. They were sworn in by Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea during a brief ceremony on the university's Minneapolis campus.

David Larson, a returning regent from Wayzata, also was sworn in. The Legislature picked the four members last month to join the 12-member board.

McMillan, also a former chairman of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said he is concerned that ongoing tuition increases brought on in part by decreases in funding from the state could prevent academia from playing its role in enhancing the state's economy and developing its future workforce.

The university, he said, has to "keep education reasonably affordable for the best and brightest in Minnesota."

Sviggum, a former House speaker, said he wants to see the university become more accountable and more results-oriented. He said he wants to be able to take data to the Legislature each year showing how the university is earning funds it receives.

He is not sure yet what the measures will be, but listed increases in four-year graduation rates, low- and middle-income graduate numbers or the number of engineering degrees as possible measures.

"I want to really focus on performance," Sviggum said. "Our role is to use those more limited funds ... and be able to use them more efficiently."

Allen said the university needs to look at ways to gain revenue. That includes improving its ability to derive funds from patenting and licensing innovative inventions, an area the school is focusing on, he said.

Regent Dean Johnson agreed. The former state senator from Willmar said the state used to provide about 45 percent of the university's budget, but now accounts for less than 20 percent.

"You have to figure out how to generate new income," Johnson said.

Allen said he is looking forward to working with the new class of regents.

"I think they come with a lot of experience," Allen said. "And they come with a lot of knowledge on what the Legislature thinks of the university."

Sviggum, Johnson and Allen said campuses in Duluth, Morris, Rochester and Crookston all continue playing valuable roles in the university's success.

"They are very valuable in the course offerings they are a part of," Johnson said.

Sviggum added the university must work more closely with Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system schools to ensure the two entities are not duplicating efforts. Though he has no indication of it at this point, Sviggum said such duplication could cause the university to trim some programs.

Allen acknowledged that ongoing funding decreases could cause changes at university campuses. But he emphasized that the greater Minnesota campuses are strong in their niches and there are no plans for major cuts.

Morris continues to rank highly nationally as a liberal arts school. Duluth is a sizable undergraduate institution on its own. Crookston and Rochester are smaller but growing, he said.

Andrew Tellijohn is a Twin Cities freelance writer for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.