Not even the U of M deserves a blank check

Tom WestUniversity of Minnesota President Eric Kaler, writing in the St. Cloud Times March 10, pointed out what a tremendous asset the University of Minnesota is to the state.

There’s no question about that.

With 25,000 employees, he noted, it is the state’s fifth largest employer, and even has 54 employees living in St. Cloud. The University has 500,000 alumni, has 69,000 students currently, and graduated 14,000 last year alone.

More importantly, he wrote that the university through the education of so many has saved lives, enhanced salaries, supported the local economy and increased tax dollars.

But then Kaler moved on to the crux of his article, which is that there is no way to measure the contributions of the U of M. What is the worth of finding a cure for Alzheimer’s, for example, or a way to stop Ug 99 wheat rust fungus, which threatens the world’s food supply? How do you value the lives extended by the heart pacemaker, the economic worth of the taconite process used in mining iron ore, or the creation of a new variety of apple?

Most likely, some wizard exists in the University’s Economics Department who could take a stab at those answers.

Our courts of law routinely place dollar values on lives cut short by accidents. Damages from patent or copyright infringement can also be measured, so to suggest that the contributions of the University of Minnesota are immeasurable is a slight exaggeration. The formula would be complex and take considerable effort to find, but less than coming up with an approximation of the gross national product, which the federal government does every month.

Then Kaler concluded by urging citizens to contact legislators to support the University’s capital and budget requests.

And that’s where his argument breaks down. As they say on Wall Street, past performance is no guarantee of future results. Kaler’s column comes on the heels of several revelations suggesting the university has been less efficient with its financial resources than it needs to be.

First, Kaler announced that Joel Maturi would be paid $351,900 in the year after retiring from his job as athletic director. The spinmeisters have since said that Maturi will be doing fund-raising for the University, but the question then becomes, how much are other fund-raisers being paid by the University? Is that the going rate?

Next the StarTribune reported 10 other University executives have received a combined $2.8 million as parting gifts upon their retirements.

And last came the report that Kaler’s predecessor, former President Robert Bruininks, directed $355,000 to something called the Center for Integrative Leadership in order to fund his own retirement job. He will receive all but $14,000 of those funds.

Again, the spinmeisters have stepped up to say that these are “executive transition leaves” that are typical in higher education when a top administrator wants to go back to a faculty position.

Really? Then why was Bruininks’ arrangement news to most of the University Board of Regents?

The fact is that the $355,000 came from something the spinmeisters call “presidential discretionary funds,” which I interpret to mean a “slush” fund controlled by the University’s president.

We are now in the fifth year of the Great Recession. The victorious nation of World War II was able to fund almost any government program it wished to for more than a half century, but when the downturn hit, a resetting of the entire economic table should have occurred.

Many Americans have been justifiably upset to learn that Wall Street has gone back to paying million dollar bonuses after the government added trillions to the national debt to help recover from the financial sector’s misdeeds.

Meanwhile, USA Today reported this week on a number of government retirement benefit scams unveiled elsewhere.

Former Oregon football coach Mike Bellotti, for example, is receiving a state pension of more than $41,000 per month because state law allowed a Nike endorsement deal and his TV commentator work to count as part of his salary for pension purposes.

In Illinois, two teacher union lobbyists whose only classroom experience was one day each working as substitutes, received teacher pensions for life based on what USA Today called “hefty union salaries.”

Servant leadership has been replaced by an elitism in America, and it isn’t only in big business. It’s also in academia, big labor and government. It begins with the self-delusion that because they are special, the powerful deserve extra benefits.

The argument that the pay-offs at the U of M are needed to attract top-notch talent rings off-key when good talent would create an open, transparent enterprise that can justify the expenditure of every dollar.

Some defending the U of M executive compensation practices say that only a third of the U’s budget comes from tax dollars anyway, so what’s the big deal? Well, the deal is that the non-elite masses who are footing most of the tax bill shouldn’t have to pay a penny to anyone who doesn’t have a demonstrable need.

The non-elite count on both the Legislature and the University Board of Regents to be their watchdogs, and both need to start asking much tougher questions, beginning with how many retirees and “non-essential” employees are still on the active payroll, how soon can they be removed, and how else can the U reduce tuition for the non-elite?

Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Peach. He may be reached at (320) 352-6569 or by e-mail at tom.west@ecm-inc.com.

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