U nion supporters jeered at University President Bob Bruininks’ hour-long State of the University speech at Coffman Union on Thursday afternoon.
Among the approximately 400 audience members were yellow paper signs emblazoned with phrases such as “Repeal The Tuition Hikes,” “Cut Corporate Welfare, Not Worker’s Wages” and “Cut Bruininks $340,000 salary, not worker benefits.”
During a question-and-answer session after the speech, the moderator interjected several times during the discussion to insist that interrupting students “respect the due process.”
In response to an audience catcall about not having to pay rent at the president’s mansion, Bruininks said, “I can tell you that the biggest hits in this budget were in administration, and even living at Eastcliff is no free lunch.”
Phyllis Walker, president of the American Federation of State,County and Municipal Employees Local 3800, said 60 University administrators make more money than the governor and asked Bruininks why the University does not scale back pay for administrators.
“I won’t even think about that because I don’t even think that’s worth discussing,” Bruininks responded. “As a benchmark, our executives are not overpaid relative to any study of salaries within our field Ö and we have to retain the top people for these positions.”
Bruininks also said union supporters distributed fliers before the speech containing false information about his salary.
Immediately after the question-and-answer session, unionized clerical workers and student workers held a press conference protesting Bruininks’ speech.
“What he said was morally repugnant when so many of these people are struggling just to make a living,” said Isaac Kamola, a University political science teaching assistant and union organizer. “I was committed well before this, but now I feel evensurer that this is a just cause.”
Others supported Bruininks’ first State of the University speech.
Tex Ostrig, a coordinator for the University’s Office of Multicultural and Academic Affairs, said he felt the speech was “very informative.”
“I wasn’t surprised that this happened because whenever media is involved with these types of events, certain people gather that also want to make their opinions heard as well,” Ostrig said. “But that’s part of what’s great about higher education- at least people have that right to express themselves.”
Philosophy teaching assistant Scott Forschler said he was concerned that Bruininks did not fully address workers’ issues, but union members should also have identified themselves. Some workers who spoke would not give their names or positions.
“Short forums make it hard to address big issues, so you start to wonder what’s the point other than a spot for people to smile and look like they’re saying something,” Forschler said.
Although the majority of Coffman Union’s televisions carried the speech on closed circuit, the TV lounge across the hall from the theater where the event took place drew dozens of students by showing the latest episode of “The Maury Povich Show.”
“I didn’t really know what was going on until it was already over,” said Katie Rauchwarter, a child psychology senior. “But if they had put it on, I would have watched it.”
University President Bob Bruininks addressed the University and answered questions Tuesday in the first State of the University address in Coffman Union.
Despite a tumultuous year that included a contentious University presidential search, historic budget cuts and tense labor negotiations, Bruininks spoke optimistically of the University. But the University’s fiscal realities tempered Bruininks’ positive outlook.
“There are many indicators that the University of Minnesota is stronger and more vibrant than ever,” he said.
Bruininks cited the recently completed fund-raising drive, Campaign Minnesota, which raised $1.66 billion in seven years, an exceptional first-year class and achievements of the coordinate campuses.
University administration officials shared Bruininks’ upbeat view of the University’s future.
“Our thinking is that it is unlikely that we will see those kinds of cuts again,” Executive Vice President and Provost Chris Maziar said Wednesday.
“Our best estimates and our best forecasting of our state’s economy are that we would not be seeing a repeat of the 2003 legislative session the next go-around.”
But because no additional funding is yet secured, and the cuts this year were deep, administrators’ enthusiasm is tempered.
“We are concerned that we are going to be challenged to see the state funding grow to keep pace with the cost increases institutions like ours face,” she said.
Bruininks said state budget cuts set the University back five years. He said it would take the school more than 20 years at current fund-raising rates to make up for recent budget cuts
Maziar said University officials attacked the budget deficit in three ways: budget reductions, tuition increases and avoiding additional cost increases.
The University asked employees to accept wage freezes this year and to pay for health-care cost increases to avoid additional costs, resulting in an ongoing labor dispute.
“Normally in the past what the University would have tried to do with health-care cost increases is we would have absorbed those in the budget,” Maziar said. “In the face of these budget cuts, we couldn’t absorb them.”
Upset University union employees held signs and repeatedly interrupted Bruininks, yelling phrases such as, “Shame on you, Bruininks!” during the question-and-answer session that followed the speech.
Administration officials appeared frustrated and annoyed by the continuous interruptions.
“We get no preparation for these types of things,” Bruininks said after the event.
Both employees and students have taken some of the brunt of budget cuts. Undergraduate resident tuition increased to $5,962 in 2003 and has increased 50 percent since 1998.
Minnesota Student Association President Eric Dyer said the focus needs to be on students.
“Nobody here at the University would be here if not for the students,” Dyer said. “That should be the main focus of the administration, the Board of Regents – everyone.”
Maziar said although these cuts are the realities of a struggling economy, the school continues to improve. She said the completion of construction projects from the last few years makes a noticeable difference.
“The place just feels put together,” she said. “People really belong to the ‘U’ now, and this is sort of the focus of their identity while they are students.”
While she said the campus’s new look will improve a student’s experience, it helps that the University is admitting more qualified students each year.
Though the University did not accept more students this year, she said, it has 1,000 more students because of better retention rates.
Bruininks called the incoming first-year class “the best we’ve ever had” and that it was drawn from a record number of applicants.
“I’m starting to hear from some of my faculty colleagues that they have a real sense of this improved strength of our students in the classroom just because of the way people are performing and interacting in class,” Maziar said.
She said graduates will find value in their degrees from the University because of these strides.
“Every time we improve we make every alumnus’s degree worth that much more,” Maziar said.