The U still can’t explain the waste

Discussing the budget is thorny business; the U’s silence on the issue of inflated administrators speaks loudly.
April 19, 2009

To the reader: I am sorry; I have failed you. I spent my week trying to understand the University of Minnesota’s budget, after many hours poring over the numbers and seeking council, I’ll say plainly, I still don’t get it. But I now understand why the University pays people to understand this stuff; it’s torture. Whether my failure is a reflection on my ability to comprehend, or if it is a reflection on a budget that is simply too complex for the layman to understand, I’ll leave that for the reader to decide.
When people like myself, University professors Judith A. Martin, Timothy Brennan, Eva von Dassow, and University Chief Financial Officer Richard Pfutzenreuter IV attempt to explain the University’s massive, sprawling budget on the opinion pages of newspapers, our words will most likely only serve to confuse rather than to clarify. The written word does not lend itself well to budgetary explanations; there are simply too many technical terms, too many explanations requiring explanation.
For example, when Pfutzenreuter explains that included in the institutional support budget category are “changes in the way utility costs are recorded … [And] a change in the methodology for recording fringe benefit costs,” no one is likely to know what he is talking about (I sure didn’t) but a proper explanation of each term would probably require another 1,000-word commentary. I hate to entertain this idea, but I think only a handful of people will truly understand the “grand design” at our University, if anyone at all.
I spoke with Pfutzenreuter late Friday afternoon; I don’t suspect he was intentionally being vague, only doing his best to explain the unexplainable (at least in 1,000 words). He explained the quotation above has much to do with federally mandated reorganization of labels and coding, and the actual spending is something different than what is represented on the budget, or as he explains, “a budget plan is not the same as actual spending.” To which I wonder, is it not the purpose of a budget plan to detail actual spending? It’s all very confusing to a guy who usually avoids numbers, but that just seems like common sense.
All this is not to say that the week was without interesting revelation. To the contrary, I did confirm my sneaking suspicion of widespread bureaucratic waste at our University. Last week’s column induced a lot of e-mails from staff, faculty and alumni. Each e-mail offered praise, and most went on to explain dysfunction seen from their own particular perspective. For obvious reasons, none of these people were willing to go on the record. (Never a good idea to bite the bureaucratic hand that feeds you, which I learned the hard way in the Army.)
An e-mail from one alumnus and self-proclaimed “old-timer” offered to treat me to lunch, also offering this greenhorn idealist some much-needed advice.
After we met I learned that he was indeed an old-timer, with the street smarts, and grandpa-like wisdom to prove it. His advice in summation: Yeah, you get it kid. Things are a mess around here, same way as in my day. But nothing’s going to change, and rocking the boat will only get you in trouble. (For the journalists and editors of this newspaper, much of the conversation was dedicated to this old-timer criticizing today’s Daily press corps as compared to the days when Daily reporting exposed and dethroned former University President Ken Keller. He thinks we’re soft. Let’s prove him wrong.)
It’s ironic that Pfutzenreuter choose to reference my hero Thomas Jefferson in his commentary refuting the assertions of his colleagues and this column. He quoted Jefferson’s observation that “the most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do” (hinting that my commentary is superfluous). Of course I agree with my hero, and I believe that when he originally uttered it, he was sincere.
The fact remains that neither Pfutzenreuter nor Martin addressed the most egregious offense mentioned in this column and in the original commentary in the Star Tribune. In the face of budget shortfalls, at a time of hiring pauses, and cutting of programs that directly assist the student body, the University continues to employ high-paid vice presidents and associate vice presidents whose value has been called into question; to this point, the University has been mute. They also thought a proposed faculty salary cap at $250,000 was unworthy of mention. Whether their silence is an admission of fault is now my question.
How many lower-level, student services staff/faculty can you hire with just a single vice president’s salary, travel and other assorted expenses? My guess is about five (a modest estimate I suspect). That’s one vice president or associate vice president instead of five working-class, real people (people that you can actually see) helping us to become better educated. For my money, I’ll take the efforts of five regular Joes over the contribution of a single vice president any day. It is the contention of this administration, and especially University President Bob Bruininks, that a single vice president or associate vice president is more valuable than the five employees that won’t be hired or will be laid-off. As for this columnist, considering the duties of vice presidents are not easily discernable and that these people are mostly invisible to the student body, I wholly disagree.
When I spoke with Pfutzenreuter and our conversation slid to the topic of vice presidents and general waste, it was suddenly time for “other meetings.” But he did make something very clear, one man holds the power over these questionable vice presidents: Bob Bruininks. By the time you read this, I will already have requested a meeting. Stay tuned.

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