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Our view: UMD request about more than buildings

Last fall the University of Minnesota Duluth turned away 150 prospective students who were hoping to study engineering and then land the good-paying jobs that the Northland’s emerging aviation, mining and other technology-

dependent industries are eager to fill. The school simply didn’t have enough laboratories or other specialized facilities to accommodate the eager undergrads.

“The bottom line is we’re slammed for space in science and engineering,” UMD Chancellor Lendley “Lynn” Black told the News Tribune editorial board in a meeting this week that also included, by speaker phone, University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler. “For the engineering firms, pipeline firms (and others), we cannot graduate people quickly enough in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) areas. (These local industries) keep coming to us saying, ‘Send us more.’ ”

So it can do that, UMD is at the state Capitol this legislative session hoping to land

$24 million from a bonding bill expected to be as big as perhaps $1 billion. After adding $12 million of its own, UMD is looking to build a 56,000-square-foot “chemical sciences and advanced materials building” where it will educate the Northland’s engineers and scientists of tomorrow. Far from your typical brick-and-mortar classroom facility, UMD is envisioning a place filled with research laboratories, instructional laboratories and other high-tech learning features and spaces from where it can collaborate and innovate with local businesses and local industries. The Northland’s economy stands to be the winner.

“(The building) will allow us to admit an additional 200 students or so, at least, and also meet the needs of not only engineering but chemistry and biochemistry,” Black said. “Those have traditionally been not only some of our largest but some of our most excellent majors at UMD.”

Brian Kobilka majored in biochemistry and chemistry at the University of Minnesota Duluth — before winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2012. How many more budding Nobel winners could get their start at UMD with this new facility?

“We’re also looking at this as an economic development opportunity for the area,” Black said. “We estimate that in addition to the $392 million yearly economic impact we have on this region, this building would have a $56 million additional economic impact over the two years of its construction. It’s another way that indicates how critical UMD is to the economy.”

To that President Kaler added, “To innovate and to create the graduates that industry needs, it’s very, very important to have this chemical and materials building. It really addresses the bottleneck around laboratory space.”

The University of Minnesota additionally is seeking about $100 million from the Legislature this year for building upgrades systemwide. UMD stands to get about $10 million of that with Cina Hall and Heller Hall, the oldest buildings on campus, in the most need of heating, ventilation and electrical system upgrades and other work. UMD’s Tweed museum also could be upgraded, including space for an American Indian Learning Resource Center, Black said. Private fundraising for that already has begun.

Yes, UMD is facing a much-reported $9.4 million budget shortfall. But already, responsibly, it has identified $2.5 million in cuts and $700,000 of new revenue. Supplemental budget numbers expected in mid-April could help even more. And Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed $5 million for UMD from the state’s surplus.

The addition of hundreds more science and engineering students in a new world-class learning facility only would further improve the university’s future and bottom line — right along with the Northland’s.