Because its research leads to innovation that launches new industries and creates jobs and because it's pumping out, year after year, thousands of brainy, energetic new graduates, the University of Minnesota Duluth and university system are good investments for the state, Board of Regents Chairman Dave McMillan said as a keynote speaker in Duluth last week.
The challenge is convincing lawmakers in St. Paul to continue making that investment.
"We've got to constantly drill it into the heads of our legislators that we are focused on Minnesota and we are focused on what Minnesota businesses, communities, and citizens need and expect from their university," McMillan, of Duluth, said at a Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon Tuesday.
"We've got to move beyond our (university system's) laurels, which are impressive, but come up with new value propositions and value equations for the state so the Legislature says, 'You do deserve a big piece of that ... pie'," he said. "I think we can do that, but I think we've got to get creative with how we do it. I think we've got to bring some private-sector discipline to the fiscal side, and ... constantly recalibrate and realign our research agenda with what our state of Minnesota needs."
Gov. Mark Dayton seems to think Minnesota's public colleges need more of the pie. Dayton proposed $542 million for the University of Minnesota system and the Minnesota State system to fix their aging buildings. The allocation was about a third of Dayton's $1.5 billion bonding proposal to the Legislature. Lawmakers haven't put forward bonding proposals yet.
Both systems are seeking more than $220 million in bonding this session to address mounting backlogs of maintenance and renovation needs.
McMillan pointed to a few things the state gets in return when it invests in the University of Minnesota Duluth and the university system - in addition to all those sure-to-do-great-things graduates, including those who, a few decades back, invented iron ore; and we all know how that worked out for Northeastern Minnesota. He specifically mentioned the system's Forestry Center in Cloquet; Large Lakes Observatory in Duluth; Natural Resources Research Institute in Hermantown; Coleraine Mineral Research Lab; Hubachek Wilderness Research Center in Ely; North Central Research and Outreach Center in Grand Rapids; and Glensheen in Duluth.
"I think we can do a better job of convincing the Legislature why we matter," McMillan said.
The state's investments into its universities aren't keeping up, Gov. Dayton said in his State of the State: "Further damaging the future success of our colleges and universities is the chronic inadequacy of our state's capital investment in their campuses," he said.
Selling lawmakers on the need to keep investing, year after year, including during this year's legislative session, remains the challenge.