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Published February 23, 2011, 08:03 PM

Facing possible budget cuts, UMC may eliminate ag education program

The University of Minnesota-Crookston, facing anticipated budget cuts, could eliminate its agricultural education program to save money. The move, though painful, would be the fairest way to help achieve the necessary savings, a school spokesman said.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

The University of Minnesota-Crookston, facing anticipated budget cuts, could eliminate its agricultural education program to save money.

The move, though painful, would be the fairest way to help achieve the necessary savings, a school spokesman said.

Supporters of the program say eliminating it would hurt a state already short of ag teachers. “I’m worried for the profession,” said Lyle Westrum, who leads the UMC ag education program.

He stresses that a final decision hasn’t been reached and that he worries the situation could discourage a larger-than-average crop of students expected to begin the program in fall 2011.

It’s unclear when, or even if, the ag education program — which prepares college students to teach ag to high school students — will be eliminated.

UMC Chancellor Chuck Casey is scheduled to present the school’s plans March 9 to Robert Jones, senior vice president of the University of Minnesota System Academic Administration, said Andrew Svec, UMC’s director of communications.

That meeting most likely won’t determine the ag education program’s fate because the Minnesota Legislature hasn’t decided how much money to allocate to the University of Minnesota, Svec said.

But if the program is cut, UMC would work with students to help them to complete their degree, at Crookston or elsewhere in the University of Minnesota system, Svec said.

Westrum said it’s his understanding that UMC students who start the program in fall 2011 will be able to complete it on the UMC campus regardless.

Tough times

Minnesota’s state budget crisis means less money for higher education, forcing the University of Minnesota-Crookston to make tough financial choices, Svec said.

About half of UMC’s budget comes from the state, he said.

UMC reduced spending by about $1 million last year, about $500,000 this year and is eyeing a further reduction of $1.08 million, or roughly 5 percent of its budget, Svec said.

Enrollment at UMC is growing, and the institution wants to put its remaining budget to the best use, Svec said. So, the school has an “action plan” that divides its academic programs into three groups.

- Programs that are growing and need more investment.

- Programs for which the current level of support will be maintained.

- Programs that will receive less support. Three programs — ag education; hotel, restaurant and tourism management; and organizational psychology — are identified for elimination.

As of fall 2010, 20 students were enrolled in ag education; 21 in hotel, restaurant and tourism management; and 13 in organizational psychology, Svec says.

“The budget situation has necessitated a look into the harsh reality of possible elimination of some of our low-enrolled majors. Given a choice, no one wants to eliminate degree programs, but the state budget situation over the past few years is a reality,” he said.

“If we are forced to discontinue any programs, our administration would first discuss the lower enrolled programs, those which would have the least impact in our overall enrollment,” he said.

UMC has no plans to eliminate other agriculture-related degree programs, Svec said.

“Agriculture-related majors are an important part of what UMC is about, currently and historically,” he said.

Svec said he encourages Minnesotans concerned about potential spending cuts at UMC to contact their state legislators and express support of state funding for higher education.

Regional impact

Whitney Lian, a UMC sophomore and ag education major who’s involved in a petition drive to keep the program alive, said she doesn’t think eliminating it would be wise.

“We don’t have enough ag education teachers now. This would mean even fewer teachers,” she says.

Ag education teachers trained at UMC often encourage their high school students to attend UMC, boosting the Crookston school’s enrollment, Lian said.

Lian hopes to collect more than 300 signatures by early March in her petition drive.

Ag education teachers trained on the Crookston campus typically remain in northwest Minnesota after graduation, she said.

The number of students in the UMC ag education program doesn’t tell the full story, Westrum said.

“It’s a small program with a big impact,” he said.

An Agweek cover story late last year looked at the shortage of ag teachers, both in the Upper Midwest and nationally. Many existing ag teachers are near retirement, and replacements will be needed in the next few years.

While college students who graduate with a degree in ag education aren’t guaranteed a teaching job, their chances of finding one are very good. Ag education degrees often lead to other jobs in agriculture as well.

Land grant universities — in this region the University of Minnesota, North Dakota State University and South Dakota State University — typically offer ag ed degrees.

Lian, a native of Thief River Falls, said she probably would have attended Colorado State University to study ag education if UMC didn’t offer the major.

Lian said she’s confident she’ll be able to complete her degree in ag education on the Crookston campus in 2013.

But she worries about the impact that eliminating the program would have on UMC, potential ag education students and the region overall.

“This program does a lot of good,” she said.

The ag education program, established at UMC in 2000, still is relatively new, Westrum said.

Ten new students already have been accepted into the program for fall 2011, which indicates that interest in it is growing, he says.