January 4, 2013

Charles Lane’s Jan. 1 op-ed column, “Big bloat on campus,” about costs at public universities, summarized parts of a recent Wall Street Journal article about the University of Minnesota. However, the column and article did not report that, despite stunning state disinvestment, the university is more productive than at any time in recent history. It serves nearly 9,000 more students than it did in 2000, and it has reduced the per capita cost of educating students by 13 percent. It has increased research grants and contracts by 40 percent. Private philanthropy has grown to record levels, and students at the Twin Cities campus are graduating at rates nearly 43 percent higher than they did 16 years ago.

Mr. Lane reported the Journal’s analysis of administrative hiring at the university without providing the proper context. Growth of research and attending to the myriad regulations associated with it, improving the student experience and managing complex technology all require staff who are classified as “administrative.” And many of those activities do benefit students directly. Nine percent of our budget is spent on administrative oversight, a level in line with many nonprofit organizations.

Finally, Mr. Lane criticized a “vast new housing development” without mentioning that this 5,000-acre parcel will be mined for gravel for decades and redeveloped, yielding millions of dollars for the university.

I agree that reducing costs — including tuition — on U.S. campuses must be a priority as the shift away from state support of higher education continues. In addition, enormous change is under way at all institutions, driven by technology, shifting politics and an evolving economy. Addressing these challenges isn’t easy, particularly at large, decentralized research universities. Institutions must standardize operations to a much greater degree and apply lessons learned from business. Higher education also must be more accountable to policymakers, business partners and, most important, students and their families.

Since I became University of Minnesota president 18 months ago, reducing administrative costs has been a top priority. In my inaugural speech, I pledged to hold the line on these expenses, and we’ve made significant progress. We have eliminated two major administrative offices, saving more than $2.2 million annually. We were the first public higher education institution nationwide to move to Google applications — avoiding $15 million a year in technology costs. Finally, we kept tuition increases at a 12-year low of 3.5 percent last year and have made freezing undergraduate tuition at current rates for the next two years our highest priority.  

We know there is more work to do. There are tough choices ahead for all colleges and universities, but the conversation about tuition should be framed by facts in perspective and, in Minnesota’s case, in the context of the loss of nearly $140 million annually in state aid since 2008.

Eric W. Kaler, Minneapolis

The writer is president of the University of Minnesota.

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