The state of the University

The president sits down for a frank discussion with the Editorial Board.
By
  • Daily Editorial Board
April 07, 2010

Editor’s Note: Members of the Minnesota Daily Editorial Board sat down with University President Bob Bruininks for a wide-ranging discussion of the state of the University on Wednesday. The full interview will be available on the Editorial Board blog, Unfit for Print, on Friday.

In his prepared University address remarks on Monday, President Bob Bruininks reiterated his view of the University of Minnesota’s “new normal” financial situation and called for a “new covenant” with Minnesota, where a more stable funding stream would be met with more accountability from the University.
Early in our interview, Bruininks had strong and earnest words for budget-crafters in St. Paul: “You have arguably one of the best public research universities in the world; it is one of the most important strengths and comparative advantages of the state in the global economy, and you have to protect it.”
In the face of the state’s historic divestment in higher education, Bruininks argued the reaction to scale back on the University’s aspiring goals was a false choice, though he flatly admitted it was realistic to give up on parts of his ambitious 2005 strategic positioning agenda in light of University budget cuts.
To maintain the bulk of the University’s ambitions, Bruininks spoke of cost cutting (he said, “There are a number of offices that are just plain going to be cut, I’ll have a better announcement on those probably in the May and June period”) and the importance of streamlining administrative functions through personnel reorganization and the centralization of certain functions such as finance and purchasing.
While plans appeared in the works, and numerous successful cuts have already been made (particularly in the past two years), it remains difficult to square such assurances with the fact that administrative costs have outpaced University budget growth overall during the whole of the president’s tenure. Bruininks was a bit uneasy with our use of certain numbers, saying, “I should examine them a little more carefully; I’m not prepared to deal in the deep weeds here with you.”
Regarding the increase in administrative costs, the president cited an increased regulatory burden, “some of it following 9/11,” and “mismanagement in the financial systems … these things have spilled over into nonprofits like the University of Minnesota.”
One problem, however, is that tracking changes with University costs is exceedingly difficult. Although Bruininks is proud of the transparent release of information, ranging from annual budgets to salary levels, a fundamental lack of clarity remains. Complicated, technocratic financial documents — the University budgets — are not made understandable and unit performance measures are not publicly released in a timely fashion.
Thankfully, Bruininks recognized that students raise a legitimate question when they ask for a specific breakdown of where their tuition dollars actually go. “Right now, Peter Radcliffe is working on a set of data that will help that become more understandable.” Radcliffe is the director of planning and analysis for the University.
Despite ongoing and dramatic budget challenges, Bruininks was quite resolute that there will not be a return to “double-digit tuition increases,” which he termed as “not fair, not the right thing to do.”
On another positive note, Bruininks reminded us that the University was dead last in scholarship fundraising among the Big Ten when he took office. Under his leadership, that amount has increased exponentially, through his efforts to create and grow the Minnesota Promise scholarship program, and this was the accomplishment of which he is justifiably most proud.

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