BEMIDJI PIONEER EDITORIAL: Legislature needs to deliver for higher education

In order for Minnesota’s higher education system to meet the changing needs of employers and students, we urge the State Legislature to approve funding requests from Minnesota State colleges and universities for infrastructure, technology and operations.

The requests include items for Bemidji State University and Northwest Technical College to the tune of $22.5 million for capital projects, $6.65 million for deferred maintenance projects and $375,000 for campus support.

The capital funding would allow BSU to replace Hagg-Sauer Hall, an aging classroom facility that has risen to the No.1 spot on the Minnesota State bonding list. BSU leaders are seeking funds to tear down the 82,000-square-foot, 48-year-old building and replace it with a 27,000-square-foot academic learning center.

The legislative session is scheduled to end on May 20, and Gov. Mark Dayton has made it clear he will not call a special session this year.

“There are ‘help wanted’ signs are all over the place, and there are serious concerns about the availability of the talent Minnesota needs for the knowledge-based economy,” Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra told the Bemidji Pioneer editorial board in an interview last week. “So there is a lot at stake.”

Devinder and BSU/NTC President Faith Hensrud shared their hopes for support from the state.

Hensrud said the university is planning to cut its 2018-19 budget by more than $1 million, and the campus support funding would reduce those cuts by almost one-third.

BSU would need $141.7 million to complete all of the deferred maintenance projects on campus. The university would receive $5.4 million for that purpose under this year’s request, and would use that money to install energy controls, update its electrical grid and repair a portion of the roof on Sattgast Hall.

In order to illustrate the deferred maintenance needs, Hensrud gave the governor a piece of rusted-out pipe that Dayton still has in his office.

“I was visiting the governor’s office and I saw it and I was told where it came from,” Malhotra said. That could be one of the reasons Dayton has proposed $50 million more than Minnesota State requested for deferred maintenance, also known as asset preservation.

The Legislature has mandated a tuition freeze for higher ed, thus prompting the request for $10 million in campus support statewide.

“We are hesitant to (increase tuition) anyway,” Malhotra said, “because of our concern about affordability. Many of our learners are first-generation students. Even though our tuitions are still fairly low, we don’t have any other option but to go the state and ask for additional support.”

Hensrud added, ” It’s like you’re running a business but you don’t have ability to adjust your price. That’s not a good way to run a business.”

So the institutions will continue to manage their budgets and make the necessary cuts while trying to meet the changing needs of learners and employers.

The clock is ticking, and we know negotiations will continue on funding priorities, but the state needs to do its part and approve these requests.