Last week, a referendum sponsored by Students for a Democratic Society to reduce University of Minnesota administrative costs and freeze tuition passed during All-Campus elections. I had an opportunity to meet with SDS members during my regular office hours with students, and I deeply share their concern about rising tuition.
The referendum called for full disclosure of the University budget every April. Our budgeting process is transparent, but the Legislature is still in session in April and our allocation is not known then. Thus, we cannot complete the budgeting process in April. Depending on the legislative cycle, I present a budget to our Board of Regents annually in a public meeting, usually in May or June, and every line item is publicly available online.
The SDS referendum supports freezing tuition, as do I. My top priority in the University’s current legislative request is a two-year tuition freeze for Minnesota resident undergraduates. I am grateful that funds for that freeze are in Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget and both higher education budgets in the Legislature.
The referendum also calls for a pay cut for administrators making more than $200,000 annually. We routinely benchmark salaries, and they are consistent with the Twin Cities market and higher education nationally. In fact, the total amount paid to senior administrators is below the median for the same jobs in the Big Ten and among our national peer group. The belief that the University can cut salaries and benefits while retaining or attracting capable people to manage a $3 billion organization is unrealistic.
Since taking office, I have been driving Operational Excellence and our agenda to operate more efficiently and effectively as a University. We have reduced administrative costs, eliminated offices and consolidated services — saving millions. We will continue to do that.
Some commentators in the media have deftly turned the conversation about the cost of education to focus only on the cost of administration. Administrative costs at the University are about 9 percent of our total budget, a number highly consistent with administrative costs at many nonprofit organizations. By focusing on administrative costs, those commentators avoid talking about the real driver of tuition increases: the unprecedented $140 million a year cut in the state’s investment in this University. That state support, historically, was instrumental in making tuition more affordable. Some also don’t make note of our pledge to redirect $28 million from administrative costs over the coming biennium or the substantial reductions we have already achieved in my time here.
That leads to the SDS referendum’s overarching principle. Those who voted for it declared: “I agree that University of Minnesota students should have a voice in tuition increases.” In fact you do have a voice, an important voice. But you must lift it. Go to www.supporttheu.umn.edu, find out who your elected officials are, and contact them. Write a letter to the editor of your hometown newspaper. Post your support for a tuition freeze on Facebook or Twitter. Tell everyone that the University has pledged to reduce administrative costs and we need the state to partner with us to freeze tuition and invest in important job-creating research.
If you raise your voice, you will be heard as the legislative session comes to a close May 20. That’s a referendum worth winning.