In many ways, the university is Minnesota's economic engine, and the value we provide to the state continues to increase. So it's no secret that I've been disappointed to see higher education sink lower and lower on the list of state budget priorities.
Many experts agree that research universities, and the educational, research and creative opportunities they provide, are essential to economic growth and prosperity. If that's true, Minnesota is disinvesting at the exact wrong moment.
For the second time in six years, our state funding has been cut deeply, requiring difficult decisions about which academic programs and initiatives must expand, which should be maintained, which should be substantially reduced or consolidated and which eliminated.
Such decisions are made more difficult by two factors:
First: The significant cut to our state funding in 2003, followed closely by the development and implementation of our strategic plan, transformed the way we deliver on our public mission. The more obvious changes have been exhausted. The decisions we face now cannot be easily done or undone, and will have lasting effects on the university, our students and the state.
Second: The national economy and the state's budget woes do not correspond to the health of the university. Most of the university's key indicators are up, students value our degrees, and employers want our graduates. We are being pushed to downsize despite growing demand.
I believe that reduced public funding constitutes the "new normal" for public universities. This represents one of several new realities we face, including an aging population, a diminishing workforce, increasing diversity, intense competition for resources and students, and growing demands for additional accountability.
As a result, we will need to become more nimble and responsive, more productive and efficient, more service-oriented and competitive, in order to generate new sources of revenue, recruit and retain talented students, and attract and compensate high-performing faculty and staff.
We've made substantial progress on each of those goals, and we have a long-term vision for the University of Minnesota system that goes well beyond the next budget cycle.
Groucho Marx once famously remarked, "Those are my principles, and if you don't like them ... well, I have others." Our principles don't change in response to short-term pressures, because they are the right principles: academic quality, affordable access, unparalleled service, groundbreaking innovation and responsible stewardship.
We are educating students to meet the long-term human capital needs of the state, and generating new knowledge and ideas to solve many of society's most pressing problems. I believe these goals transcend hard times and should not be abandoned lightly.
The University of Minnesota was founded before Minnesota became a state, by visionary leaders who saw an abiding public good in the advancement of knowledge. Setting public priorities demands such strong leadership.
Clearly, we must continue to do more on our own to realize our vision -- to improve academic quality, reduce costs and increase productivity. But it is also time for a serious discussion about Minnesota's vision for higher education.
A world-class land grant and research university costs money, but the cost of mediocrity will be even greater.
Robert H. Bruininks is president of the University of Minnesota.