Bridges and Budgets

Cory Rasmussen

IT USED TO be that messages from University of Minnesota student groups lined the pedestrian walkway atop the campus's Washington Avenue bridge. Painted annually during Campus Kickoff Days, the paint for the panels was paid for by the UM and the labor was supplied by students. But the university this year axed the event's small budget--little more than the cost of electricity, paint, and paint-sprayers--and instead paid for the paint-a-thon by selling space to advertisers. So students crossing from East Bank to West now pass billboard-style panels pushing Microsoft's, TCF's banking services, and UPS.

Although commercial space on the bridge is limited to a few panels, the change reflects broader, structural changes in the way the university, in its zeal to "decentralize," has begun handling its budget. This year, individual UM academic and support departments for the first time are responsible for generating most of their own funding and for spending only as much as they can drum up. The plan, portentously dubbed "Incentives for Managed Growth," is supposed to make the university more competitive and efficient. And while even the new plan's staunchest critics agree that it may force administrators to become more practical, many faculty and students fear that the quality of a UM education may be subverted by the university's increasing preoccupation with its fiscal performance.

Under the new system, 75 percent of tuition charged for each class is sent to the college where the course is taught, while 25 percent goes to the college where the student is enrolled. The colleges in turn must pay for faculty, facilities, and services from tuition funds received, with little help from the state's UM subsidy. "Central isn't going to be daddy anymore," Fred Morrison, chair of the Senate Policy and Planning Committee, recently told a faculty group. "Central is going to say to you, 'You're grown-up now. You've got to manage your funds for yourself and let's see what those funds are.'"

The competition between colleges for students--and the tuition dollars they bring--lies at the heart of much of the worry about the new budgeting system. Some faculty and students are concerned that in an attempt to compete, colleges may increase class sizes, expand course selections outside their field of expertise, and create obstacles to interdisciplinary study, for example. Professor Catherine French, chair of the IMG Oversight Committee, notes that one of the faculty's central concerns is that the plan may spur colleges to act in their own interests at the expense of the university as a whole.

For instance, the College of Liberal Arts could lose tuition dollars if rumors are true that the Carlson School of Management is considering offering classes in English, Spanish, computer sciences, and digital technology. On the other hand, Steven Rosenstone, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, says there's a chance his school may finally see its budget reflect its teaching role. "IMG has the potential of giving us our fair share," he says.

Overall, however, the problem is that no one really seems to know how the plan will work. "The question of how this gets monitored and who actually has the leverage to say to a college, 'You should be doing what's appropriate in your college. You shouldn't be doing what other colleges are there to do,' is a huge concern and worry to which there is no answer," Judith Martin, a member of the Senate Committee on Educational Policy, cautioned during the debate over the new system.

For his part, during debate over the policy, incoming UM President Mark Yudof noted faculty anxiety and characterized himself as a skeptic of the approach. "I know a substantial group of faculty members are not too gung-ho or enthusiastic. It seems to depend largely on the college you're in," he said. "So much blood was spilled on this and so much controversy, and it goes into effect in July. I'm not going to undo it in October. I'm going to wait for some of the data to come out at the end of the year."

Meanwhile, some members of the university community aren't waiting to see who fares well under the new plan. Higher education, they fear, has already done too much to mimic business. "When students become consumers a sense of trust is lost and the relationship is caveat emptor, which is the consumer world," says Harvey Sarles, a professor of cultural studies and comparative literature. "Buyer beware."

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