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University Of Minnesota / U leaders push bioscience buildings

New financing scheme may accomplish goal

See previous post for backstory. The Pioneer Press today provides further insight into the deal that is apparently taking place concerning new biomedical science buildings. Note Mr. Pfutzenrueter's admission: " This is an effort by the university to grab market share..." Waves of spam have gone out to incite the troops to hit the capitol this Thursday. Free lunch, free bus ride, and a chance to endorse... what?

I am certainly not against the University obtaining funding from the State in support of its legitimate mission as a land grant institution. In fact we need every penny we can get to stabilize tuition and support the core of the university, including non-science areas that are also critical for our remaining a great university. This is a matter of priorities and also a matter of the soul of a university. It is not a Driven to Discover marketing campaign.

These proposed blank check biomedical science buildings have financial implications for the U that are not being examined carefully and honestly. Where is the money going to come from to pay for the new faculty? Set up funds are, crudely speaking, a million dollars per new faculty member. And the NIH funding situation right now is terrible. See the post: If You Fund It Grants Will Come.

From today's Pioneer Press

BY PAUL TOSTO Pioneer Press

Article Last Updated: 02/18/2008 11:40:34 PM CST

University of Minnesota leaders believe they have the legislative votes for a plan to build four new biosciences buildings on the Twin Cities campus, with the public paying most of the $292 million cost.

The university has pitched the biosciences buildings for a couple of years but hadn't been able to gain enough support in the Minnesota House. Officials have argued the buildings are crucial to the U's staying competitive with other universities in the race for National Institutes of Health grants.

At a hearing last week, U leaders also stressed the buildings' potential as a jobs machine in a fragile Minnesota economy. University supporters have been e-mailing faculty, urging them to pack a legislative hearing Thursday to try to win more votes.

Some faculty members are skeptical and want the Legislature to ask more questions of the U to justify the cost. Gov. Tim Pawlenty hasn't weighed in.

The plan would commit $233 million in state money to pay off bonds floated by the university. Because they'd be university — not state — bonds, they would not be subject to the limits of this year's state capital bonding bill.

U leaders say their traditional capital request — $226 million for spending on projects ranging from repairs on aging buildings to a new Bell Museum of Natural History on the St. Paul campus — remains their top priority this session.

A few weeks ago, however, lawmakers who support the biosciences buildings approached
the U with a financing plan similar to what was used for the new Gophers football stadium, said university chief financial officer Richard Pfutzenreuter.

"We're pleased with this new approach," he said. "I believe both bodies will pass it."

Why are the buildings needed?

"This is an effort by the university to grab market share" of federal research dollars, Pfutzenreuter said. "To do that, you have to have new facilities to attract top talent in the country and get them to bring their research. That's the pressure we're feeling from other universities."

Funding the project with university bonds and state cash made the difference in gaining House support, said Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, who chairs the House Capital Investment Finance Division Committee. She expects the biosciences building plan to be part of the bonding bill coming from the committee next week.

The U's competitiveness and the state's economic needs were equally important in moving ahead, she said. While she hasn't talked to the governor about it recently, Hausman said "he has indicated all along a willingness to support" the biosciences effort.

U President Robert Bruininks last week focused his arguments to lawmakers on the potential economic bump the buildings might bring, including thousands of new jobs and strengthening the state's leadership in the medical device industry. He also cautioned: "This is an industry that is global. It is very easy to lose."

While U partisans may pack Thursday's hearing, some remain skeptical.

Lawmakers need to ask more questions, said William Gleason, a professor in the U's medical school who blogs on campus issues and often challenges the U administration. He asks where will the money come from to hire faculty and buy equipment for the new buildings once built.

Two of the buildings would focus on magnetic resonance imaging and cancer research, but the U already has fairly new facilities in each of those areas, he added.

"Why shouldn't the buildings in this group be subjected to competition with buildings in other areas of science as well as nonscientific areas?" Gleason said.

"If they can be justified as good investments and we can fill them with new faculty without damaging the core of the rest of the university, then let's do it," Gleason said. "But writing a blank check given the current situation does not seem to make any sense."

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