University of Minnesota regents are missing the point

The University of Minnesota Board of Regents, through its chair Linda Cohen, properly defends the university president and his administration from criticism by former Gov. Arne Carlson in a recent exchange of commentaries (“A skewed U,” by Carlson, April 7, and “It’s U’s critics whose views are skewed,” by Cohen, April 10). The regents are responsible for governing the university and protecting it from interference by former governors and current legislators like me.

While I voted to re-elect Cohen (and her colleague Dean Johnson) to the board this year, the way in which she defends the university shows that the administration does not understand the nature of the criticism from Carlson and others. The criticism is this: The University of Minnesota spends too much on administration, and does so because it can raise tuition to pay for it.

Cohen’s response emphasizes that the university has left faculty positions open, has frozen salaries and has closed colleges. She justifies high salaries for administrators by citing the need to compete for top faculty. With these defenses, the university seems to conflate academic greatness — as measured by its faculty’s scholarship — with the salaries it pays its administrators. This attitude serves administrators but not the university’s mission.

Indeed, according to information the university provided the Legislature this year, only one employment category increased its share of total salary spending in the last 10 years — the “leadership” category. While naturally salaries for all employees increased from 2002 to 2011, leadership compensation increased the most.

Cohen’s response also shows that those in the university administration fail to comprehend that they have insulated themselves in positions of comfort while students and families are left scrambling to pay the tab. Instead of citing the cost to attend the university for families making $75,000 per year, the administration should focus on students’ reality: debt. The average debt for an undergraduate student graduating in 2011 was $27,000, higher than that at Minnesota’s other four-year public universities.

Student debt is high because the university has decided to raise tuition and offset price increases with more student aid. This financial model has several problems.

First, student aid is insufficient for middle-class families, leaving them stuck between high tuition and limited financial aid resources. Second, sticker shock over the cost of attending the university discourages many students from poor families, or students who are the first in their family to attend college, from applying. Third, student debt becomes a steady revenue source for the university, which puts university funding and students’ financial needs at cross purposes.

The result of the high-tuition, high-aid model is that both university administrative salaries and students’ tuition have continued their relentless upward march regardless of the economic storms raging outside the university’s gate. In fact, the only employees at the university who have seen job losses and salary reductions during the Great Recession are clerical staff and maintenance personnel. University Avenue and Wall Street seem to run in parallel.

Finally, Cohen’s response shows that the university is comparable in cost, administrative expense and research footprint to its Big Ten peers. This is true, but beside the point. All of higher education is following the same financial model that students can no longer sustain.

What we need from university leaders is an acknowledgment that the current higher education model is beyond its useful life and needs to change. We need to hear how university leaders are going to build on the best of what we have, while changing course on costs and student debt. We need to hear that the ivory tower wants to open more doors for students, not just redecorate the office suite at the top.