Speeches and Remarks

President Kaler’s Remarks at the 2013 Legislative Briefing

 January 23, 2013
(As prepared for delivery)

 So many numbers to ponder…let’s see…1…really good friend, who, fortunately, happens to be the governor…67 senate districts…201 legislators…118 days until the end of the legislative session…but who’s counting?!

And 140 characters. That’s the big number tonight: Twitter’s 140 characters—and sending messages. That’s why we’re here: to send a message tonight, and for the next 118 days.

And then there are the hashtags of supreme importance: #LightUMN, which stands for how this University lights up our lives and this state. And #MnLeg, the hashtag that reaches our legislators. We’ve got to send messages, loud and clear. And, of course, they need to be short and…“Tweet.”

We’ll talk more about how to do that in a few minutes. First, I need to talk about why: why the University is so critical and valuable to the state of Minnesota. But how do we jam that all into 140 characters?

Here’s my attempt…

The University of Minnesota educates and prepares Minnesota’s future leaders to tackle the world’s most pressing problems. #MNleg  #LightUMN

Perfect. 139 characters. Room to spare. Because we’ve only just begun here tonight. So, welcome to our annual Legislative Briefing.

Good evening! My name is Eric Kaler, I live in District 64A, and I’m thrilled to be among almost 500 fellow advocates. Thank you for being here.

I love the University of Minnesota. I want us to continue to be great, and become even more excellent. I want us to operate as efficiently as any university in the nation. I want us to be more affordable and increasingly accessible. And I want you to join me in telling our story. That we can fill this room on a cold January night is testament to your commitment to and affection for the U. Thank you to all of the alumni, advisory and Extension groups that have gathered here tonight.

You know, advocacy is not a one-night thing, or a one-week exercise. It’s a stand we need to take every day in every way as this legislative session progresses.

Yes, there’s Twitter. But that’s just a tool. There’s good old-fashioned email. And there are really old-fashioned postcards. Then there’s an age-old and very effective method that’s a bit out of style these days. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. It’s called talking to one another!

It’s that face-to-face meeting with the legislator from your district. I recommend it. Or talking to your neighbors at your table and developing new ways to influence others in your community and your districts.

Take the folks from Senate District 44. Where are you? That’s Senator Terri Bonoff’s district. Senator Bonoff is the chair of the Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee, and a key player in advancing our legislative requests. We need you folks at the District 44 table to have your senator hear your voices.

Or District 28A. Anyone here from the Winona area and Representative Gene Pelowski’s district? Bless you! One person. Well, anyone willing to move to Winona?

Representative Pelowski chairs the House Higher Education and Finance Committee. He needs to know from U supporters across the state that we are committed to being among the nation’s most academically excellent and operationally efficient universities. Find on Twitter him here: @GenePelowski. Remember that one!

I bet you heard that Governor Dayton announced his budget yesterday. He shares our concern about rising tuition and the impact it has on students and families in Minnesota. That’s why he recommended funding the portion of our request that freezes tuition for Minnesota undergraduates.

He also understands the impact the U’s research enterprise has on Minnesota business and our economy. That’s why his budget fully funds our proposal—called MnDRIVE—which supports research to advance Minnesota’s businesses and our innovation ecosystem.

Finally, Governor Dayton shares our belief that all Minnesotans from the far reaches of District 1A in the northwest corner of the state (Where are you?) to the neighborhoods of District 59B in and around north Minneapolis deserve access to basic health care. That’s why he proposes to fund a loan forgiveness program for the U’s health sciences students who agree to begin their careers serving people in underserved areas of Minnesota.

We need to supply him with details of our administrative costs by March 15 for that funding, but we will, and the report will be good news. But his budget now moves to the legislature, and we need to ensure that his vision—which is much like ours—is kept intact. Driving Minnesota’s prosperity, boosting Minnesota’s job creation, ensuring our special quality of life, preparing Minnesota’s future.

So, what is our story? The numbers and details of our Biennial Budget are on the nice, shiny folder in front of you. Get to know them. But the real stories are sitting among you.

First, let me assure you—as I’ve been telling legislators and the governor in recent days—we are a well-run university, and with opportunities to do better. We are an institution with employees and systems in place that are more productive than at any time in our history, providing a world-class education for our students. Do we need to get better in our operations?

Of course, we do. But since the day I was hired, I have been leading efforts to tackle administrative costs. It has been a priority. Why? So that we can get to our core goals, to our own University of Minnesota promised land…to a nation-leading level of excellence in all we do at an affordable price for all qualified students in Minnesota.

That is my number one priority. That is, in fact, the challenge in higher education today—to deliver excellence at an affordable price. That’s why a key element of our biennial budget request is that ZERO increase for undergraduate tuition for Minnesota residents.

You know who benefits when that happens? The state does, because we at the U prepare the next generation of leaders and smart employees more quickly, moving them into the work force. But mostly, students like Elizabeth Pappenfus and their families benefit.

Elizabeth is from Farmington, District 58B. She’s a junior at our Morris campus, and, I’d say, just a little bit busy. She is engaged in undergraduate research with a psychology professor. She is a Morris admissions tour guide. And she is—get this—triple majoring: in psychology, sociology, and Morris’s unique Liberal Arts for the Human Services. In her spare time, she is minoring in biology and statistics. Once a week, we’re told, she sleeps.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth is also minoring in student debt.

The first in her family to go to college, she’s received some financial aid. But, still, by the end of this school, year, her debt will be in the $12,000 range, with another $6,000 expected in her senior year. That potential $18,000 or more has her talking with her friends and wondering how she’ll pay it off and what her graduate school options (she wants to earn an advanced degree in public health) can be with that load.

Fact is, she’s about $9,000 better off than the average debt of University students, who take out loans in the neighborhood of $27,000. Student debt is a burden that must be lifted, and that can only happen if we’re able to halt rising tuition.

Our goal is to cap tuition and benefit students like Elizabeth. It will keep tuition in check, and reduce debt. Elizabeth, where are you? Please rise. We are very proud of you and we’re going to fight for you and other students like you!

Elizabeth’s story is similar to that of thousands of other students on our Crookston, Duluth, Rochester, Twin Cities, and Morris campuses. They are caught in that awful and imperfect storm of state disinvestment and increased tuition.

Let me draw a graph for you about Minnesota and higher ed funding. Imagine an axis here that is the year 1999 to 2011. And this other axis is the amount of money per capita that states allocate to higher education.

Graph comparing Minnesota and national cuts to higher education funding from 1999 to 2011

For the United States, that number has declined about 23 percent over that period, the consequence of political decisions and economic reality.

But, in a Minnesota graph, the decline in funding in Minnesota wasn’t 23 percent, but 48 percent, putting us well below the national average of funding students in higher education and headed toward the lower quartile with states like Mississippi and Louisiana.

The amount of money we now get from the state, not accounting for inflation, is below 1998 levels. And that despite the fact we have more students, more campuses, more graduates than ever before, and they are completing their degrees in a more timely fashion.

The result of the state cutbacks is that families and students are picking up a larger portion of the tab than ever before. Fifteen years ago, if Elizabeth showed up with a dollar, the state showed up with two dollars and that’s how her tuition was paid. Now, she and students like her show up with a dollar, and the state of Minnesota shows up with just 50 cents.

That’s the shift of cost onto the student. That means higher student debt and higher tuition to make up for lost public support. That can’t continue. That’s not sustainable. We must raise our voices to change that.

In another very important component of our request, we propose a new way to invest in our research and innovation. We call it the Minnesota Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy program, or MnDRIVE. That V is kinda cute, don’t you think?

The partnership is this: We line up the U’s research strengths with the needs of the state, and to support existing and emerging industries.

We’ve focused on four areas:

  • Food safety and production (About 20 percent of the state’s economy is food related.)
  • Environmental challenges—mostly water quality issues—posed by growing industries, such as mining, agriculture and natural gas exploration
  • Critical new treatments for brain disorders, such as Alzheimer’s, epilepsy and addiction
  • And robotics, which can make manufacturing more competitive in many of your counties, nationally, and globally

Let me focus on the robotics piece tonight. It clearly builds on our scholarship and innovation strengths. It can dramatically boost this state’s economy. We are already a world leader in miniature robots for reconnaissance and surveillance, and safety for our peace officers and military.

This here is the Scout robot or throw-bot. It’s technology our researchers developed and it is now used around the world.

Advancements in robotics will be able to help:

  • our agricultural sector,
  • health care with medical robotics, and
  • environmental monitoring, among applications.

That doesn’t happen without great scholarship and curious innovators. Namely, our faculty.

Among the world leaders in robotics and artificial intelligence is our Morse-Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor of Computer Science Maria Gini. Don’t you think it’s really cool that when we wish for a new invention, we turn to someone who’s a Gini? Professor Gini—District 41B—is here tonight, and I want to honor her for all her great work and as a representative of all of our world-class researchers and faculty. Professor, please rise.

Which brings me to another key piece of our budget request. We suggest a collection of policy initiatives that can aid families or provide tuition relief for a student.

Among them: tuition relief if the student enters a healthcare profession and works in underserved areas, such as rural towns and inner cities.

So, imagine this: A little girl emigrates from Thailand to the United States. She grows up in California with a passion to wipe out disease and treat chronic illnesses in at-risk groups. She comes to know that one of the nation’s leading Colleges of Pharmacy is ours. Like a magnet, it attracts her talent, her energy, and her aspirations to Minnesota.

But the bill for her pharmacy education is likely to top $200,000. Still, when she arrives here, she directs her work to helping the large Somali community, many of whom are our neighbors on the West Bank.

Through a loan forgiveness program that we want the legislature to pass, such a caring and innovative young pharmacist would see her debt reduced by up to 45 percent if she gives three years to helping solve one of our state’s most pressing problems—providing health care in an underserved community.

This is not fiction. This is a prescription for our common good. And it’s the true story—the wonderful path—of one of our pharmacy students. Joy Hwang lives now in southeast Minneapolis, District 60B. Joy is with us tonight, too. Please stand; and thank you.

Finally, our budget request is all about accountability.

We will meet performance measures. We have proposed to meet up to five measures in exchange for 1 percent of our budget. Among them is increasing financial aid to our students.

Dillon McBrady from Maple Lake—District 29B—knows all about that. Unlike Dillon’s Morris classmate Elizabeth, he is debt free.

About one-third of our students across all of our campuses graduate without debt. Many of them benefit from our vast array of financial aid, which amounted to more than $210 million last year. Our performance goal is to exceed that in the coming years. Here’s why: because it’s the right thing to do and because education is the pathway to prosperity.

Dillon is going to be the first in his family to graduate from college. He is the president of the University of Minnesota Morris’s student body. He has two older sisters. Both left college before finishing because they carried too much debt and worried about the value of a degree.

But Dillon was awarded one of our important systemwide Promise Scholarships for low- and middle-income students and their families. He won a prestigious Chancellor’s Scholarship at Morris for being in the top 5 percent of his high school class. Plus, he received a Pell Grant, a Federal Opportunity Grant, and a Minnesota State Grant.

We must continue to support accessibility for great students like Dillon from across the state. And we will.

Dillon, thank you for your hard work. Please rise.

So add this all up, and that’s what our Legislative agenda and request looks like. It looks like Elizabeth, Dillon, Joy, and Professor Gini.

The numbers on your folders are important, but they’re the nuts and bolts. But those students and that professor—their faces and their stories—are the heart and soul of our request. We must advocate for it, and for them.

Every day in every way. Together.

Now, let’s get to work.

Thank you.