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Olson: MnSCU must do more with less

Minnesota State Colleges and Universities need to do more with less after Gov. Tim Pawlenty wields his unallotment pen.

"We are convinced that government -- it's not a business, we understand that -- needs to do some things that businesses are doing today, which is they are providing a better product for less money," says David Olson, Minnesota Chamber president.

Olson, who is also chairman of the MnSCU Board of Trustees, was in Bemidji on Thursday as keynote speaker to the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce Awards of Excellence lunch.

"Businesses, MnSCU, the state, have to start to do the same thing," Olson said of doing more with fewer resources.

No final decision has yet been made by Pawlenty, but a week ago when he announced that he would solve a $3 billion budget gap if the Legislature could not, said that higher education could be unallotted $146 million -- roughly half to each the MnSCU and University of Minnesota systems.

Olson remains confident that even with that level of cuts, MnSCU institutions will still be able to prepare a 21st century workforce.

"I think we can, and I think we can because there's some things we can do that don't call for legislative action," he said. "There's things we can do that don't call for more money. In reality, we're going to have fewer students, so I'm hoping we can do a better job with these limited resources."

The potential shift of school district payments and deep cuts to Local Government Aid will prompt reform at those levels, Olson said.

"You're going to see some school districts and we've already seen some cities that are restructuring their services, and which are basically saying we're all in this recession together and we need to work harder to come out of it," Olson said.

Despite Democratic leaders earlier this week saying the Pawlenty unallotment of higher ed funds will cause double-digit increases in tuition, Olson said students will not be asked to make up a spending gap.

"It can't," he said. "Literally, there's a 5 percent cap (on tuition hikes), and we're going to use federal stimulus money to bring that down to 3 percent."

But it will mean "we're going to have to do some things differently," Olson said. "If there's one disappointment with the hole budget conversation, is that we don't think there's a lot of reform in the final analysis."

Bemidji State University last week announced measures it would take to meet an anticipated $2 million budget shortfall in 2010 and 2011 -- actions which do not take into account a pending unallotment of additional funds.

BSU said it would cut $1 million from academic affairs, $400,000 from finance and administration, $400,000 from university-wide and fixed costs, $150,000 from student development and enrollment and $50,000 from the president's office.

The proposed measures call for trimming Bemidji State's operational expenses, eliminating some vacant and permanent part-time faculty positions, adjusting staff hours and reducing some staff positions.

The Inter-Faculty Organization which represents teaching staff has already offered a pay freeze.

The university also announced last week other adjustments beyond the $2 million in budget savings that it says will serve to strengthen the institution's future. They include:

- Identifying additional resources to support the Center for Extended Learning and its rapid growth in online enrollments.

- Adding new instructional technologies.

- Reducing and changing the way some programs and services are offered in the future.

- Developing additional permanent energy reduction strategies.

Bemidji State said it will finalize its budget plans by month's end and submit its plans to MnSCU in time for action by the Board of Trustees on June 17-18.