Faculty, Staff, Students Discuss Implications of Public Higher Education Budget Cuts

Katie Stromme, Head Copy Editor

Most students at Southwest Minnesota State University are too young to remember the Minnesota Miracle of the 1970s. Reform laws enacted by Gov. Wendell Anderson sourced funding for public education from state sales taxes and excise taxes. For students at public state universities, this guaranteed that two-thirds of their tuition would be covered by the state.
The picture has become much bleaker since then, thanks to a bevy of budget cuts that have been taking place since 2002, and SMSU  President Dr. Ron Wood is deeply concerned about what that means for the future of Minnesota.
“It’s not just about the debt,” he said. “I’m also concerned about the students who can’t even afford to attend college in the first place.”
Wood, along with other SMSU faculty, staff, and students, spoke out in favor of funding for public higher education on Monday, April 16 in Charter Hall 201 at a National Day of Action event that took places as part of a larger discussion about the nation’s retreat from affordable, exceptional education.
“In the seventies, education took off,” said Wood. “We had lots of human capital.” He remarked that companies in Minnesota will begin hiring from outside of the state, or even the country,if there is not a viable, educated labor pool of Minnesotans to draw from. “The lack of labor pool will drive away businesses…why are we cheating our state’s future?” he said.
The consequences of decreased funding have been felt everywhere on campus.
Diana Holmes, the head of SMSU’s American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union, began working at SMSU in 1996. At the time, there were 144 non-faculty staff members employed on campus. By 2011, that number dropped to 77, and as a result, she said, employees are literally doing the work of two people. “For the legislature to skimp on our funding is a disservice. And, to me, it’s an insult.”
Brent Jeffers, the chief negotiator for SMSU’s Inter Faculty Organization (IFO), said he sees it as the duty of his generation to provide a cost-effective education for the current generation of students. To do otherwise “…is an embarrassment for my generation, who benefitted from having their education subsidized,” he said.
Emma Volstad offered her perspective as a student. She obtained her bachelor’s degree from St. Olaf College, a private liberal arts college in Northfield, Minn. before coming to SMSU to enroll in the Master of Education program.
Because SMSU is unable to offer as many grants and scholarships, the cost for her to attend is higher than it was at St. Olaf. As a result, she’ll be graduating with a sizeable debt, while looking at teaching jobs that start at a salary of around $30,000 per year. “State and federal governments need to be held accountable for funding our citizens’ educations,” she said.
She noted how the cuts to education cause a sharp decline in quality—a result of fewer course offerings, increased class sizes, and heavier professor workloads. This is occurring at the same time that budget cuts are forcing administration to raise tuition prices for students. The end result is a less valuable, more expensive college experience.
Campuses across Minnesota are speaking out in favor of funding for public higher education, and lawmakers are showing that they are willing to listen.
National Day of Action events hope to raise awareness for budget issues that affect everyone at public schools across Minnesota.
Contacting state lawmakers through written letters, email, and phone calls are all effective methods of making sure your voice is heard loud and clear.
Lyon County is represented at the state level by Chris Swedzinski and Gary Dahms.
At the federal level, Collin C. Peterson represents the state of Minnesota in the House of Representatives, while Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken represent Minnesota in the Senate.