Letter from the dean: September-October, 2008

tom-fisher.jpgDear Colleagues,

Watching the stock market move up and down like a roller coaster running on rumors, I thought of the writer Farhad Manjoo's new book: True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society. In it, Manjoo argues that the fragmentation of media has brought a flood of misinformation that has encouraged increasing numbers of people to respond more readily to ideas that feel true, rather than are factually correct. Manjoo's claim seems borne out by the behavior of the stock market, but it also represents a clarion call to us as educators. We have a responsibility not just to teach our students the knowledge and skills they will need in their chosen fields, but also to help them learn to assess information critically and to draw conclusions based on verifiable facts, however counter those facts may be to how we feel.

National Rankings
The same is true as we assess our own situation in higher education. Every year, the Chronicle of Higher Education publishes the "Almanac Issue," summarizing data about colleges and universities across the U.S. This year's issue, just out, listed the average pay among full-time faculty members in public doctoral institutions in Minnesota as the highest in the country ($95,702). California and New Jersey followed closely behind us, but most of the other states were quite a bit lower, as much as $20,000 to $30,000 below ours. Although Minnesota ranks tenth among the states in the number of higher ed institutions (109), we have only one major, public doctoral institution, the University of Minnesota. High-paying fields like medicine and business comprise a sizable percentage of our faculty, which may account for our high average salary, but this fact runs counter to how many of us feel. While financial support of the U has declined precipitously as a percentage of the state's budget, we remain better funded than many other public research universities, evident in that salary number.

We remain in the top 25 of all institutions, public and private, in most other areas as well. The Chronicle's data shows that we rank 16th in terms of the annual expenditures for our library ($40 million), 24th in the size of our endowment ($2.8 billion, up 26% from last year), 16th in terms of both the level of overall support last year ($289 million) and in the level of corporate support ($49 million), 15th in the amount of R&D expenditures last year ($595 million), and 22nd in the amount of Federal R&D funding we received last year ($326 million). We also stand 22nd among institutions nationally in the number of national merit scholars (96), fifth among all schools in terms of our enrollment (50,402), and fourth in terms of the number of Ph.D.'s granted annually (720).

Among public universities, our endowment ranks sixth and our level of annual giving seventh in the nation, and we rank 19th in the number of national faculty awards, and third (fifth among all universities) in the income generated by faculty patents and licenses. The University of Florida's annual evaluation ranks us sixth, overall, among the publics and 17th among all universities, even with Florida's mistakenly not counting the Minnesota Medical Foundation in the University's endowment numbers, which dropped our ranking from last year. And sports polls this week even ranked our football team as 20th in the nation. Miracles do happen!

Economic Challenges Ahead
We may need a miracle in the next few years, given the prospect of a possibly deep or prolonged global recession. The University and this college will survive the coming downturn, as we have previous economic recessions, including the Great Depression of the 1930s. But the next year or more will test our ability to move forward without as many new resources we have received in recent years.

Donor commitments in the college, for example, increased 475%, from $800,000 last year to $3.8 million this year, and donor gifts grew 59% from $1 million last year to $1.7 million during the same period. While there remains considerable support in the community and among our alumni for what we do, we may not be able to sustain such increases in future, at least until the credit markets loosen up and the stock market settles down. A recent conversation that Steve Goldstein, the new president of the University of Minnesota Foundation, had with the deans suggested that it may be a while yet before we go "public" with the next campaign, given the financial uncertainty at the moment.

The impact of a recession on the state's budget also remains an unknown, as does the effect it will have on the legislature's response to the University's requests. As you probably know, President Bruininks and the Board of Regents have decided that, despite the difficult economic climate, we need to request from the legislature enough money to cover an average of 3% increase in faculty and staff compensation, a scholarship program for students from middle-income families who do not qualify for the free-tuition benefit available to low-income students, and modest investments in the University's research facilities in order to keep us competitive. The University also anticipates raising tuition 4.5% for each of the next two years to cover core costs.

We don't know how this request will fare in the legislature, but the University has already begun to anticipate possible future cuts to its budget. President Bruininks has asked colleges to model 1% and 2% reductions to our budgets, and at the recent deans meeting, he spoke about his desire to avoid layoffs as much as possible and to reduce our workforce through attrition.

We have reduced the college staff by 7.5 positions through attrition, which has enabled us to make significant progress in reducing the deficit of our core O&M account that occurred when the University over-estimated our tuition income when forming the college. We have also just heard from the University that the Provost's office will have to approve all requests by colleges and their units to refill faculty and staff positions vacated by those who have taken the Retirement Incentive Option (RIO): in our college, five people.

Attrition constitutes the most humane way to reduce our numbers, although it doesn't always align with what work needs to get done. For example, we have already received approval to hire Stephanie Dilworth, financial services director in the College of Education and Human Development, to replace Rose Blixt, who will retire this coming June. I don't know how successful we will be in gaining the Provost's approval to refill other positions vacated because of RIO, but we will do our best.

Silver Linings
Every downturn or setback has, within it, opportunities worth seizing. Because of our slightly smaller staff, we need to look critically at all that we do, and use this next year to stop doing or do less often tasks or activities not central to our core operations. We eliminated our continuing education program, for example, because the demand for our continuing education offerings never came close to covering our costs or justifying the staff effort.

These times also give us an opportunity to re-examine things that have seemed excessive. A 2% reduction in our O&M allocation, for example, comprises $197,000, which sounds like a lot until you hear that all of the units in the college, collectively, spent $170,895 on food last year and another $11,000 on alcohol. We might, in other words, go a long way toward dealing with our budget challenge by eating less and less often, wasting less food and maybe gaining less weight in the process.

The greatest opportunity of all lies in our coming together as a community to consider our options and determine the best course of action. The decentralized nature of our University empowers us to decide how we want to move forward as a college, and I look forward to that conversation, beginning in our all-college meeting and first faculty assembly this Friday. We will get through what lies ahead, and that's not just true enough. That's a fact!