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Could Gopher football scandal block university budget?

President Eric Kaler of the University of Minnesota says on Tuesday Jan. 10, 2017, that the school needs more state aid for a variety of research efforts. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)1 / 2
Professor Paige Novak of the University of Minnesota talks on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, about the importance to the state of research done at the school. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)2 / 2

ST. PAUL — The University of Minnesota's request to bump up its state funding $147 million comes at a tough time.

The big university news over the past few weeks has been a football scandal, easily topping the team's Holiday Bowl victory. With that fresh in Minnesotans' minds, university officials are hitting up the Legislature for more money.

"It doesn't help," said Jennifer Schultz, a Duluth legislator and University of Minnesota Duluth professor. "Timing wise, it is really bad to get when these fires happen. And we have really had a lot of fires."

The football scandal involved some players allegedly sexually assaulting a women. It came months after allegations revolving around sale and use of drugs by wrestlers.

"I think they are going to want to hear how it is being handled," Chairman Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said about lawmakers.

"To the public, it appears they are very, very generous with how they pay people," added Nornes, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee. "The public is sensitive to that because nobody is getting paid anywhere close to what they are paying coaches."

MORE: U of M budget initiative aims to tackle student debt

Former football coach Tracy Claeys and his staff will get $5 million after the university fired them following the sex assault allegations and the school will pay new coach P.J. Fleck $3.5 million this year.

University President Eric Kaler on Tuesday, Jan. 10, told reporters while talking about his proposed budget that athletics expenses such as coaches' pay do not come from taxes or tuition.

"Sad to say, that is the cost of doing business in a big-time collegiate conference," Kaler said about the big paychecks.

Student Lauren Twomey says she has gained a good education in the U of M's journalism school.  (photo by Don Davis)Despite lawmakers' concerns about public perception, Kaler said that he thinks Minnesotans understand that their money does not go to athletics. He also said the university needs a high-profile athletic program to support high-level academics programs.

"One thing that I find a little bit insane is the amount of money some of those coaches are being paid," said Rudy Perrault, United Education Association president and director of orchestras and professor of violin-viola at the Duluth campus. "I don't see coaching a team any differently from teaching or coaching an orchestra to perform."

Ultimately, state policy makers will decide overall university funding, while school officials decide how much goes to each of the five campuses: Twin Cities, Duluth, Crookston, Morris and Rochester.

"I trust the university," Nornes said. "I still have faith in the university. They just have some work to do to restore some of that trust."

Kaler and other university officials will talk to lawmakers in coming months as the Legislature works on preparing state government's two-year budget, expected to top $40 billion.

The university's request to add $147 million to its state aid would boost its total two-year request to $1.4 billion.

Of the total, $68 million would go to its core work, with $22 million set aside for improving student success and $32 million planned for the MnDrive research program.

Kaler said part of his work to sell the budget plan to lawmakers will be talking more about what the school does in greater Minnesota.

While the percentage of greater Minnesota students has edged up on the Twin Cities campus, topping 22 percent of undergraduates this academic year, Kaler said, "The thing we need to change is to talk about the impact on greater Minnesota."

Kaler will use examples such as a Hibbing dental clinic the university operates. Health-care training also will be atop his list, along with several programs dealing with agriculture.

Professor Paige Novak said the MnDrive program has expanded environmental research, including a Willmar-area "bioreactor," a 360-foot-long trench filled with wood chips that helps keep nitrates out of water.

"It is a low-cost option that can easily be implemented across Minnesota," Novak said.

The professor also said an example of what MnDrive funding has helped provide is a collaboration with a Duluth business to stop corrosion of port infrastructure.

Forum News Service reporter Maureen McMullen contributed to this story.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.