3 questions for the next U president

Early last week, I called upon my grand prognostication powers and told colleagues I expected the next U president to be a female from the west coast from an institution the U already counted as a peer.

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Then came Friday’s announcement that Eric Kaler, the single candidate for the job and likely next president is a male, coming from the East Coast, at an institution outside of the U’s peer group.

Ouch: 0 for 3. Given what I do know about the U and its ambitions, however, count me as surprised. With Kaler set for public interviews today, here are my questions for the next U president.

How does the U get to the middle of its peer group on key measures.

Five-plus years ago, the U made huge changes as part of its Strategic Positioning push, changes that U leaders hoped would transform the university into one of the top three public research universities in the world.

As part of that, the U killed General College, a portal to the university for many high-potential but low performing teens, and introduced an Honors Program intended to attract some of the best and brightest from Minnesota and across the country.

Yet, half way through its “top three in the world” campaign, the U’s been unable to crack the top three in the Big 10, let alone the world, on some of the undergraduate rankings it cares about most.

Here’s information drawn from the university’s most recent accountability report. Click on the images for a larger view.

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While it’s made strides in graduation rates and drawing more high school students from the top 10 percent of their graduating classes, it still sits near the bottom of its peer group and below Michigan and Madison, the universities it aspires to be.

The U’s pushed to improve graduation rates and has made progress in getting more students to graduate on time. But it remains way below peer schools. A few years ago the U set a goal of having 60 percent of undergrads graduating in four years by 2012. With only two years to go, the trend lines don’t look promising to meet that goal.

What’s Kaler’s plan to meet those benchmarks?

Where will the money come from to drive those bioscience buildings?

The U made a big push at the Legislature a few years ago to get the state to pay much of the roughly $300 million cost for several new biomedical sciences buildings near the football stadium, including a Cancer-Cardiovascular Facility set to start construction next year.

U President Robert Bruininks sold the Legislature on the bioscience buildings largely on economic grounds, arguing that the U and Minnesota would lose out to Wisconsin, California and other states in the pursuit of biomedical dollars and jobs unless these buildings got built. He won the day.

Now, though, the U has to show it can fill the space with researchers who can win research dollars, especially federal money from the National Institutes of Health.

Despite the U’s status as a major research institution, it’s finding an increasingly competitive race for federal research money. Here are charts from the U’s 2009 research report.

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While the federal stimulus bill (ARRA in the chart) provided some cushion, the U took a step back in overall research awards in 2009.

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Despite lots of discoveries, the U’s struggled to turn research into revenue — 90 percent of the $95.2 million it earned last year from commercializing research came from one source — the anti-AIDS drug Ziagen. While revenues are growing from non-Ziagen research, the totals remain small and the U’s looking at a potentially huge revenue drop in a few years after the last Ziagen patent expires.

With the U unable to count on significant state funding increases and its endowment struggling in the recession, the quest for more federal research money and commercial dollars is vital.

Kaler’s Stony Brook U. connection to the Brookhaven National Laboratory likely gives him a head start on this. But the basic question stands: What’s the plan?

What about tuition?

Tuition is the bread-and-butter issue for Minnesota families. It’s a concern that comes up consistently in the U’s public opinion surveys.

When it comes to resident tuition and required fees, the U Twin Cities is one of the most expensive state flagship universities in the country (pdf. page 8), rising 80 percent the past decade (inflation adjusted).

The U often counters that data by noting the significant commitment it’s made in scholarship and student aid. True. But the system is showing some cracks.

Several U deans told faculty this fall that the current scholarship system is unsustainable (Hat tip to Bill Gleason’s Periodic Table blog.)

If the scholarship system isn’t sustainable, and you’re not going to slash tuition, how do you keep the U affordable for Minnesotans?

All of these questions are hard to answer. Kaler will need to confront them all.

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