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Profs call college funding problem a crime

ST. PAUL - Monte Bute grew up in the southwestern Minnesota town of Jackson, and didn't exactly have the best success there.

He landed in what now is known as the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Red Wing, where the state sent juvenile delinquents. It was there he earned his high school diploma "behind what Bob Dylan once called the 'Walls of Red Wing,'" he told the House higher education committee on Tuesday.

With that background and lots of emotion, Bute commanded attention as he pleaded with Minnesota legislators to take care of the state's colleges and universities.

Higher education simply is too expensive since the state reduced its funding from 80 percent of the total cost to 50 percent, he said.

"Inflation is little more than an accessory to the crime," Bute said. "When it comes to ever-increasing tuition rates in Minnesota, the crime scene is the state Capitol."

Bute, a social sciences professor, and other instructors from across the state, told the committee about computer systems that don't work, faculty members who are paid too little and a revolving door of college administrators. The committee soaked in the testimony, as it has from students who appeared the past few weeks, and will use the information soon when it comes time to decide how much to spend on higher education.

Testimony centered on money.

JoAnne Roche, a Mesabi Range College English instructor, said problems began years ago when all state-run colleges and universities - except for the University of Minnesota - merged into the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. Until then, Roche said, some money from larger institutions was funneled to smaller schools. Now, she added, smaller schools have to pay their own way.

"Now we operate like aircraft carriers," she said. "We are a community unto ourselves."

One of the problems Roche mentioned, as did students who have testified the past few weeks, was technical glitches. She said video classes sometimes lose 15 to 20 minutes because of them. Professors and students have said computer systems used for online classes often fail.

Financial problems are especially bad in rural Minnesota, Roche said.

"Those of us in rural colleges live under the constant threat of closure," she added.

Roche also complained about the short stint many administrators serve at smaller colleges. She said they use the small schools as stepping stones to better jobs.

All professors who went in front of the committee said they are involved in Internet-based classes, which tend to force 24-hour commitments onto them. Students send questions all times of day or night and expect immediate answers, professors said.

Roderick Henry, a Bemidji State University business professor, said faculty members have harder time doing their jobs today because their work "has been compromised through under funding and misdirected funding."

It is hard to recruit faculty members because of low pay, he added.

"We now have to hire from the faculty left over after other universities with better salaries have had their pick," Henry said. "This represents long-term rot that will inevitably catch up with the system - at which point fixing the problem will be a lot harder to do."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.