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Commentary: Making an investing in Minnesota’s future

Sen. Dean E. Johnson

As Minnesotans, we pride ourselves on having a strong commitment to education and a culture that supports and nurtures discovery. These factors, coupled with an abundant supply of natural resources, have allowed Minnesota to thrive for more than 150 years. But today, as we cope with the aftermath of the Great Recession, students, families and industry in our region are concerned about how they can afford college and fuel the innovations that will rebuild our economy.

 Keeping tuition affordable and helping industry advance our economy must be among our top priorities. They are at the University of Minnesota, and we invite policymakers to join the discussion.

 Minnesota students and their families are facing financial strain because of a historic shift in who pays for higher education. We need to stop this trend. In seeking stronger funding participation by the state, University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler and we on the Board of Regents aim to freeze tuition for our resident undergraduate students for two years.

 For each of the 120 undergraduates from Kandiyohi County now enrolled on our campuses, a two-year tuition freeze will result in about $2,500 in savings over their four years at the U. That’s a meaningful savings for most families. While this is a good start, topnotch graduates are only part of the equation for ensuring economic success.

 To fuel industries in our region and state, we propose a partnership with the state to create MnDRIVE, the Minnesota Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy fund. MnDRIVE will advance emerging technologies that are critical to growing key Minnesota industries and creating new jobs.

 For example, Minnesota and the upper Midwest have an amazing opportunity to lead the next generation of mining and the drive toward energy independence. But this requires research and innovation to ensure Minnesota’s strict environmental standards are met. The University of Minnesota is uniquely positioned to bridge that gap.

 The U is a national leader in working with companies to reduce water pollution that results from shale gas and oil exploration. Our scientists are testing microbes that literally eat away pollution. This kind of research will put Minnesota industry on the leading edge of economic expansion that is environmentally responsible. And it’s just one example of how discovery at the U illuminates the state and beyond.

 MnDRIVE will align the university’s research and innovation strengths to meet the state’s other pressing challenges, such as advancing the treatment of destructive brain conditions such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia, which put the health and finances of families at risk. And we will enhance public-private partnerships in agribusiness, manufacturing and health care — all critical to west central Minnesota’s economy and job creation.

 Just like small businesses and families in a tough economy, the university needs to cut costs and be a good steward of limited resources. President Kaler plans to cut administrative costs by $28 million in the next two years in order to fund highpriority activities. With more focus on accountability, the university will achieve specific outcomes to earn part of our state investment for 2014–2015.

 By taking a fresh approach, we have an opportunity to ensure that qualified students have access to a world-class education, to invest in research to spark the state’s economic engine and to increase our accountability to the people of Minnesota. But we can’t do it alone.

 Please tell your state and local leaders to invest in Minnesota students, families and industry by supporting the University of Minnesota. Together, we can renew the state-university partnership that is critical for our young people and essential to our quality of life.

 Dean E. Johnson of Willmar is a member of the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents.