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Detractors find fault with proposed University of Minnesota budget

MINNEAPOLIS — A 4 percent budget increase for the University of Minnesota proposed by university President Eric Kaler has its flaws, detractors said Friday at a public forum on the Twin Cities campus.

Kaler’s $78.5 million budget framework for the 2016 fiscal year includes targeting out-of-state students for tuition increases and modest 2 percent wage increases for all university employees. Those working on the front end — staff members who aren’t instructors — say such a pay increase doesn’t cut it.

“We want a decent wage increase, and we want respect,” said Mick Kelly, a cook on the Twin Cities campus for the past 13 years. “I see the real difficulties, the human suffering, in my kitchen every day … we’re talking about real lives, and real people here, and we need to do something different.”

Meanwhile, Kaler defended the across-the-board increases.

“It is obviously not as much as some people would like to see,” he said. “But with that, and a merit-based system, we’ll reward people who work hard and well.”

Kaler’s budget does note that wage increases of 2.5 percent on the Duluth and Crookston campuses are reflected in the budget.

The blame for the friction seen at Friday’s forum rests with the Legislature, said Joelle Stangler, undergraduate student body president at the Twin Cities campus.

“A large part of why we are having so much disagreement today is because our Legislature failed to invest in the students in the way that they needed to,” she said. “Myself and my constituents were not invested in the way the Legislature should have, and that has required us to make difficult decisions.”

One of those difficult decisions is continued tuition increases. While resident undergraduate and graduate-level tuition have reduced increases in the budget — from 3 percent to 1.5 percent for undergraduates and from 3.5 to 2.5 percent for graduate students — the budget intentionally pushes to widen the gap between resident and nonresident rates.

Residence status aside, Stangler said the students really receiving the short end of the stick are those coming from the middle class, who she says are increasingly at risk of accruing debt while paying their way through school.

“We continue to talk about the cost of attendance as a sticker price instead of really targeting the true issue of college affordability,” she said. “There are low-income students, who we do an incredible job of supporting through federal grants and state grants … and there are students that are high-income who have families that can support them.

“Students from the middle class have been left unable to afford a college education, and we need to find a way to identify those students as need-based, or needing aid.”

Robb Jeffries

Robb Jeffries is a news coordinator for Forum News Service. He is a graduate of the University of North Dakota and previously served as a reporter and copy editor for the Grand Forks Herald. Reach him at rjeffries@forumcomm.com and follow him on Twitter at @robbjeffries.