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U of M: The house that Pillsbury built

Date Published: 06/16/2011

Author: Dane Smith, President


Iconic Minnesota founder would not approve of disinvestments in higher education

Almost 150 years ago, in the midst of economic hard times and a Civil War, a young business dynamo by the name of John S. Pillsbury was named a regent for the University of Minnesota and given the unofficial task by Gov. Henry Swift of saving it from premature death.

The fledgling university was 12 years old, insolvent, and in debt to Pillsbury’s company for the nails and hardware it took to build its first building; it basically consisted of one structure on the east bank of the Mississippi. Its “Old Main” was vacant. Cattle were grazing on the grounds by some accounts, and then as now, there were shortsighted, penny-pinching political leaders who thought it was a boondoggle and a waste of taxpayer money. Some wanted to sell its assets, leaving higher education to the religious groups that dominated higher learning at that time.

From an outstanding new book on the history of Minnesota’s Pillsbury family (“The Pillsburys of Minnesota,” by Lori Sturdevant, Nodin Press), we learn that Pillsbury spent a third of his waking hours for the next 40 years building the university into the great and dynamic public institution that now serves as a primary turbine of our state’s economic vitality. As he was getting rich, Pillsbury gave back, enormously and with his time and personal passion, not just his money.

“He had not come to Minnesota just to acquire wealth, [and] he did not turn to public service out of noblesse oblige,” Sturdevant writes. Rather, the Pillsbury ethic was steeped in hands-on, everybody-in, small-town New England democracy. The idea was that “no self-respecting citizen could neglect the needs of his community, any more than he could the needs of his family. Those with more gave more as a matter of course [and] democracy’s duties, he maintained, were to be shared by all.”

Pillsbury believed so strongly in public higher education, the book notes, that he practically bribed his nephews to attend the U instead of prestigious eastern colleges favored by their peers. He personally got involved in bringing the brightest intellects he could find to build the university, including the legendary William Watts Folwell, known for intense intellectual curiosity “in everything from Plato to hog cholera.” Pillsbury, the father of three daughters, also dictated that the university accept women, far ahead of many other states and a century before some public colleges in the South.

The Pillsbury name, of course, came to be much better known as perhaps Minnesota’s best known commercial brand (the Pillsbury Doughboy, to most of us baby boomers) and for harnessing another kind of natural resource for profit.

John and his brother and nephews were among the leading New England pioneers who captured the power of St. Anthony Falls (at some taxpayer expense) and made Minneapolis the flour-milling capital of the world. “Honest John” (a serious, not ironic, nickname) also served in the Legislature and as governor and was widely recognized as one of the state’s most upright and effective political leaders of the 19th century, setting an example for public service and clean government for which Minnesota also became famous.

But Pillsbury and his family’s equally important historic role was that of investors in human capital, education particularly, and in dozens of charitable and community institutions, ranging from libraries to homes for displaced young women to the beginning of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Although Pillsbury actually was less educated than his wife and other family members, “the thought of offering to the children of Minnesota pioneers the same chance at higher learning that his nephews had in New Hampshire appealed to John Pillsbury,” Sturdevant writes. “He was enormously drawn to the idea that he could help make Minnesota a state of well-educated people.”

Fast-forward to today’s policy debate and consider that per-student state funding for our higher education systems has declined significantly, imposing record high tuition burdens on families. Cuts-only, no-tax budget proposals enacted by legislative majorities, a position supported by some of the state’s leading business lobbies, will only exacerbate this trend toward disinvestment in higher education.

The departing leaders of our University of Minnesota and MnSCU (Minnesota State Colleges and Universities) systems are publicly distraught these days about further proposed  cuts, on top of a decade of cuts to our first-rate higher education systems. Per-student funding for the MnSCU system has plummeted from about $6,100 per student in 2000 to about $3,800, while tuition per student has soared from about $3,900 to about $6,900.

U of M President Bob Bruininks warned recently that for “the first time in history [the U] will have had three huge cuts in succession,” posing a direct threat to the “broad range of access to different options in higher education.” MnSCU Chancellor James McCormick bluntly says that cuts on top of cuts mean “we are in danger of losing this great asset that we have — the thing that provides us with our best opportunity for prosperity.”

Pillsbury, Sturdevant told me in a conversation recently, “would turn to today’s business community and scold them… He knew that business success and the success of the community were inextricably tied.”

Everybody with a lick of sense knows this, and we at Growth & Justice are calling for and working toward a 75 percent post-secondary completion rate for young adults in Minnesota, meaning any certificate or degree that prepares one for the workforce, by the end of the decade.

And in the meantime, let’s just pray for a reincarnation of Pillsbury, or the emergence of a couple of Minnesota billionaires who are similarly obsessed with higher education quality and completion.

Wouldn’t it be grand if one or more of our richest Minnesota capitalists spent a third of their waking hours over the next 40 years working on our achievement deficit for students of color and poor kids, and driving Minnesota toward 100 percent higher education attainment by mid-century?


A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, June 16, 2011.

Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a progressive public policy organization that promotes statewide economic growth for Minnesota through smarter public investments in human capital and infrastructure.

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