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Legislators discuss budget impact with BSU faculty

Higher Education Commissioner Sheila Wright and Rep.John Presell, DFL-Bemidji, were part of a higher education panel listening to concerns of instructors from Bemidji State University and Northwest Technical College-Bemidji on Wednesday afternoon. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Bemidji State University members told state officials Wednesday that the 14 percent cuts to the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system projected in the budget proposed by Republicans would cause disastrous damage.

"I don't think we should be cutting at all," said Rep. Terry Morrow, DFL-St. Peter. "We don't think 6 percent (cuts) is a good thing. We think 6 percent is an acceptable thing given where we are."

Morrow was joined in a swing around the MnSCU system Thursday with Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, Sen. Sandra Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, and Higher Education Commissioner Sheila Wright at a meeting with faculty members.

"We need to educate Minnesotans on the importance of higher education," said Pappas.

"Good education might look like it costs more on the front end, but (cuts) will cost the state more in the long run," said Wright.

However, the state officials said they wanted to listen to what faculty members have to say more than make their opinions known.

Troy Gilbertson, associate professor of criminal justice, noted the $5.2 million and net loss of 33 faculty members already mean program cuts.

Fu-Hzian Chang, professor and chairman of the department of environment, said his program is the preeminent and undergraduate environmental studies offering nationwide. He said he draws students from all over the country. But, he said, the department has been reduced from six faculty members to 3.7. That has resulted in the ability to offer courses students need every other year or every three semesters. Consequently, students can't finish their courses of study in a timely manner.

Sandra Kranz, professor and chair of the accounting department, said students see the cuts and higher tuition rates as an attempt to eliminate their opportunity for higher education.

They definitely think this is the ultimate goal," she said.

Kerry Claypool, a student who attended the meeting, agreed with Kranz's assessment.

Claypool said she is a single mother trying to raise four children, three of whom have special needs, and pursue a social work degree to increase her earning power. Without child care assistance and other benefits she would be unable to attend the university.

Brian Donovan, professor of English, spoke of the value of a liberal arts education. He said the reduction of program means students will look elsewhere for higher education, as his son did, leaving BSU for the University of Wisconsin when the BSU art program was trimmed.

"That's one thing we're calling the brain drain," he said.

Paul Nelson, high performance engine machinist instructor at Northwest technical College, spoke of the value of the education at two-year colleges. He cited statistics showing the 90 percent of Minnesota's mechanics, 84 percent of construction graduates and 85 percent of law enforcement graduates come out of MnSCU schools.

Pat Welle, professor of economics, said he looks at the situation another way. Gov. Mark Dayton's proposal to raise the income tax for the 2 percent of richest Minnesotans is an equity issue and should be accomplished even if the budget didn't need the revenue. He also pointed out that areas like Bemidji will suffer at because of the university job loss, which will also detrimentally affect local businesses.

The state officials asked those at the meeting the aspects that make BSU unique. The responses were small class sizes, faculty who really care about their students and the service to the American Indian population.