By Tom Larson
University of Minnesota, Morris Chancellor Jacquie Johnson can't help being optimistic - it's just in her nature. And while that's true this year, as the UMM academic year heads into its third week, Johnson doesn't minimize the challenges the university already has dealt with and those to come.
"It's never easy, especially when we've had to lay off people and make other changes, but we've put a lot of things in order that we needed to and I think the future is bright and exciting," she said.
Johnson touched briefly on the "state of UMM" as it embarks on the 2009-2010 school year and prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary and the 100th anniversary of its forbearer, the West Central School of Agriculture, in 2010.
UMM's budget constraints led to eight employees being laid off this spring. Johnson said that, just as significantly, administrators had to reorganize several units "to reduce redundancies and inefficiencies."
Twenty people were reassigned duties within UMM or had their unit's focus redirected.
"I'm not trying to minimize the impact of laying people off - that's something you never want to do," Johnson said. "But reorganizing and reassigning people can have an unsettling effect. It is coming together, and it will come together in good ways. That's not to say everybody is happy, but we're doing some creative things."
What troubles Johnson is what she and others have described as coming to "the cliff" in 2012, when there are no more stimulus dollars and no more tuition help.
"I think the economy could be in very grim shape and state funding (for higher education) is not likely to increase," she said.
The sight on campus the weekend before classes began encouraged Johnson.
"We got off to a great start," she said. "We had a wonderful move-in day and we moved more students in than we have in a number of years."
UMM can't discuss enrollment figures until the University of Minnesota Regents review what is called a 10-day count. Since the U's main campus won't have its 10-day count completed by the Regent's September meeting, UMM's official enrollment tabulation won't be ready for public release until after the Regent's October meeting, Johnson said.
In general terms, however, Johnson said that the number of UMM's degree-seeking students - those who live in the Morris area or are new high school enrollees - and non-degree seeking students - those who are taking classes away from the campus - both are expected to increase this year.
"The numbers are looking really positive," she said.
Johnson spoke with an older man who was on campus to audit a class. He asked Johnson what was going on that day; he couldn't remember seeing that many students milling around the grounds.
"The beautiful weather helped," she said, with a laugh, as she recounted the conversation. "But I think there's a really good sense of energy on campus. We've had good retention, and I think we'll be able to report growth among new high school students and transfer students."
Green energy initiatives
Johnson said all signs point to UMM achieving its goal of carbon neutrality by the end of 2010.
The university's biomass gasification system will be commissioned soon, as physical plant officials continue work to modify fuel stocks that will allow the plant to work efficiently, Johnson said.
"It's certainly not been without bumps and hurdles," she said, "but we have not lost sight of the dream."
UMM also is forging partnerships with community and technical colleges that would allow students from those institutions to use UMM's renewable energy infrastructure for education and training. A group from Fergus Falls Technical College has been at the university as part of a gasification course.
"To me, this is really creative thinking," Johnson said. "We're thinking about partnering in ways we haven't before."
The university also is working to secure purchase agreements and power purchase agreements with the local utility that would lead to the installation of two more wind turbines, including a second at the West Central Research and Outreach Center and a third turbine on campus. The turbines will be purchased and installed with the help of CREB bonds - Clean Renewable Energy Bonds - that expire at the end of the year.
"We're right down to the wire on the wind turbines," Johnson said, adding that UMM hopes to gain Regents approval of the project in October.
Renovation of UMM's Community Services Building continues, and officials still are hoping to achieve LEED Platinum status, which is a standard for renewable and sustainable building. If done, the building would be the first higher education construction project to earn the rating.
UMM's "green dorm" project has been delayed, but Johnson said she expects it will be on schedule beginning in 2011.
Preliminary design work on the project has been completed, and UMM's campus is overdue for a new residence hall, she said.
"But we know we have to show an increase in (current demand for) our residence halls to justify that project," Johnson said.
A library renovation probably won't surface on U of M's list of bonding requests until 2012 at the earliest, and very likely not before 2014, she said.
That's not wholly unexpected. Johnson said she doesn't expect much in capital bonding from the U of M in the future, and a greater emphasis on utilizing renovation funds. In that vein, UMM already is jumping on that trend. The Humanities and Fine Arts recital hall has been renovated, with new seating, carpeting and other remodeling. A restoration of the decades-old Edson Auditorium also is in the works, she said.
"I joke that it looks retro because it is," Johnson said.
Johnson's optimism, of course, could turn sour should UMM and the U of M system continue to be plagued by dire economic forces. Maintaining affordable tuition and top-shelf academic staff will be key initiatives in the coming years, even if the economy continues to falter, she said.
"When we hit that cliff," Johnson said, "we'll have to see what that means."