Bruininks talks budget cuts, Brewster, TXT-U

Gov. Tim Pawlenty has proposed $36 million in cuts to the University.
February 25, 2010

University of Minnesota President Bob Bruininks has returned to campus after a few weeks recovering from the prostate cancer surgery. The Minnesota Daily sat down with Bruininks in his Morrill Hall office to talk about what’s been going on while he was away.

How was your time away?
I was engaged throughout the process. I was even talking to people the day after surgery. But I had to take a couple weeks where I wasn’t in the office. I’m getting back to full strength. The surgery was highly successful, and I’m looking forward to getting back to all the challenging issues that face the University of Minnesota.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty has proposed a $36 million cut to the University. Is this the amount you anticipated?
We did anticipate that. That was the legal limit under the federal stimulus bill. The bill required states maintain their level of support for colleges and universities that was in place during the 2006 fiscal year. Under that year’s appropriation, he had the legal authority to take this down … another $36 million. We were hoping for a better result, but we did anticipate that could be the limit of his reductions. We had planned all our budget work accordingly.

And two-thirds of the cuts the University will take are planned for personnel?
No, not just personnel. What I have said repeatedly throughout my tenure is that when faced with budget reductions, we will try to take approximately two-thirds of it by reducing costs, deferring investments, and part of that is to reduce the number of people on the job. My goal is to minimize the number of layoffs at the University. We need the talented people that work here. That’s a big part of who we are, and that’s the way we deliver quality to our students and state. Two-thirds will be to reduce costs, like energy costs. We obviously have taken some painful reductions in the number of people working here. We will obviously reduce compensation levels to adjust to these difficult financial realities. We will cancel and defer some very important investments. It’s reducing costs overall, and people are obviously a part of that.

When you say reduce compensation levels, do you mean reduce or freeze?
We took a freeze this year, but we’re actually considering some modest temporary reductions in compensation to address the significant cut delivered by the governor’s budget and some extraordinary costs that we have in this next fiscal year ... We agreed with our bargaining unit employees that we would give an average of two percent [in pay increases] when times were better. We feel we need to deliver something in that area to the rest of the employee groups at the University. A second challenge facing us next year: Every three years we face the responsibility of adjusting the fringe benefit rates. Those costs have gone up nearly $10 million. A third big challenge is that there are 27 pay periods in the next fiscal year. That means most of the workforce at the University will work two weeks more and they fully expect to be compensated for those two weeks, and we’re going to do our best to pay most of it.

What form could cutting personnel take?
I think we’ll use a broad range of strategies. We’re taking action to reduce energy cost again. We will obviously be very cautious in hiring for vacant positions. We’re going to try to take reductions through attrition, through retirement incentive programs, through open positions. We may have some reductions in actual jobs, but I would like to do everything possible to minimize layoffs.
We’re a great academic institution because of the people who work here. If we lost too many of the great, talented people, we will be a weaker university.

What workers will bear the brunt of these cuts?
I think every employee classification will feel these impacts. We clearly will continue to streamline administrative overhead at all levels. We aren’t going to single out any particular group. We’re going to do anything we can to minimize layoffs. I expect we’ll have attrition and reductions over time in every employee classification across the system.

When the shooting occurred Jan. 25, the TXT-U alert system was not utilized, and the crime alert came out 12 hours following the event. This has come under heavy criticism from students and parents. Do you believe this should have been handled differently?
Every time an incident occurs that threatens the safety of anyone in the University community, we immediately review what we did and what we could have done better. I think the sense is we need to review our procedures in this area. I believe we did a lot of the things right. We were pursuing the people that perpetrated this crime; they were arrested. But I think we also had a responsibility to alert the broader community. It’s not an adjustment to our approach, but it’s something we’ll take into consideration in the future. I think the officers have to make very, very difficult decisions on short notice, and they felt the main focus ought to be pursuing these people. They had pretty much left the University community and no longer posed a threat. Given the benefit of hindsight, I think we could have handled some aspects of the situation a better way.

Yes, because they had left the University and were no longer a threat, but students didn’t know that. Rumors were flying around that there had been a shooting.
And I think that’s one of the reasons the communication needs to be so timely and it needs to be fact-based and accurate. You want people to feel safe in the University community. You want them to take the necessary precautions if there are still threats in the area. I must tell you, I’m deeply bothered by this particular incident or any threat to the safety of students, faculty and staff. The trend rates are going in the right direction; crime rates are down. We’re taking extraordinary actions to make this a safe community … I want to assure our parents and our students and the faculty and staff that this has to be one of our highest priorities.

Do you think Gophers football coach Tim Brewster deserved a contract extension?
I believe he does deserve a contract extension. We obviously had a difficult first year, but most successful coaches in college football encounter difficult first years. It’s difficult with the transition. He has had a record that certainly was consistent with previous records at the University. I believe Coach Brewster, Athletics Director Joel Maturi, myself and others believe we need to do better. But we believed it was the right thing to do. He’s done a good job recruiting good student-athletes, making sure they stay eligible and graduate on a more timely basis. I think he has played a much more competitive schedule than we’ve had in previous years. So when you factor in the recruiting success, the difficulty of the schedule and the kind of progress I think we’re making, we felt it was appropriate to extend his contract.

Rankings show the University’s recruiting class has lowered since his first season.
It’s a little lower by these ranking services, but those ranking services are not particularly reliable as far as the long-term productivity of college recruits. I would say the overall ranking of all the classes he’s brought to the University are several notches better than we had in the previous tenure period.

How many games would he have to win next year for you to be convinced that the program’s making progress?
It’s too early to say. In some ways, we face a more difficult and challenging schedule than we saw this year. But I certainly would like to do better than we did this year. I think everyone in the program … holds very, very high aspirations for our football program. I don’t want to be average, and I don’t think Coach Brewster wants us to be average.

-Taryn Wobbema is a senior staff reporter.

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