When college freshman Bob Bergland started his studies at the University of Minnesota in 1946, the school was teeming with ex-servicemen attending school on the GI Bill. One of his classmates was 25 years old with a war background that included hand-to-hand combat.
His mother, back in Roseau, feared her small-town son might pick up bad habits from the more worldly veterans, but Bergland found his colleagues to be eager to learn and appreciative of their educational opportunities.
"These men were serious students," the current University of Minnesota regent recalled Wednesday while visiting Brainerd on a media tour. "It was a good working environment."
That learning environment served Bergland well, propelling him into a career as a farmer, U.S. congressman from Minnesota's Seventh District (1971-1977) and secretary of agriculture for President Jimmy Carter (1977-81).
A self-described "old war horse" when it comes to politics, Bergland is on the campaign trail again -- this time stumping for the university's request for $221.5 million in new funding.
That request is considerably higher than the $56 million proposed by Gov. Jesse Ventura, the $87 million proposed by the Minnesota House or the $150 million proposed the Senate.
With three weeks to go in this legislative session, Bergland said the final Senate figure is likely to be the ceiling for the college's level of funding. The additional money is needed, Bergland contends, for the school to remain competitive in the recruitment of quality faculty and the establishment of centers of excellence in such areas as medicine, electrical and chemical engineering and biological science.
Ventura has defended his lower level of funding, contending that many professor's salaries are too high and some university programs duplicate those available in less expensive MnSCU colleges.
Bergland countered that the "U," created as a land grant university, rightfully has a commitment to open access and low tuition. As a Roseau resident, living 350 miles from the Twin Cities campus, he said he knows many outstate students rely on the university's branch campuses.
"As an outstater I'm not real quick to condemn the number of facilities outstate," he said.
In ideal times, Bergland said, the "U" serves the state as an economic engine, spurring new businesses and industries. He said Minnesota's flourishing medical device industry, including firms such as Medtronics, owe their existence to the university's pioneering work in heart transplants and studies of the circulatory system.
If the university doesn't keep up with industry's demand for skilled employees with experience in the latest technology, Bergland said, they'll locate elsewhere.
Bergland, 72, said he and other regents are trying to rally the state's citizens behind the university.
"We're making headway," he said. "People sort of take the university for granted. The chief competitor for increased funding is tax-cutting."
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