Bruininks fights to maintain U’s current research reputation

Libby George

University President Robert Bruininks told the House Higher Education Finance Committee on Wednesday that further higher education funding cuts could have severe long-term impacts on the state as well as the University.

“The University is absolutely essential to the long-term health and vitality to the state of Minnesota,” Bruininks said. “In my opinion, this is not the time to cut higher education Ö and give up the very thing that is going to bring us to a higher level in the future.”

Bruininks said state investment in the University brings good returns. He said the school secured $527 million in federal grants in the 2002-03 fiscal year, ranks fourth nationally in startup companies and creates 20,000 jobs for the state.

Bruininks said that if a proposed $25 million state funding cut is approved for 2003, the University will begin the next fiscal year with less money than it started with in the fiscal year.

The higher education cuts will not be determined until the joint conference committee agrees on a budget proposal, and it will be between the House’s $60.1 million recommendation and the $81.5 million offered in the Senate.

Bruininks said decreased funding could jeopardize the University’s third-place ranking among research institutions.

“What is important to remember is that getting oneself into competition with the top research universities in the country is a very difficult thing to do, and it is very easy to lose ground,” Bruininks said.

He said the Medical School is still struggling to recover its status following cuts made nearly 15 years ago.

“When you let something slip over a three- to four-year period, it sometimes takes 10 to 15 years to restore,” Bruininks said.

He added that state funding also impacts the University’s private sector funding.

“It also takes state investment to get private money,” Bruininks said. “They invest in the University because they have confidence in what we do and because they feel the state has confidence in what we do.”

Tuition increases

Bruininks urged committee members not to let students bear the brunt of the budget crunch.

“In tough financial times Ö it’s tempting to pass this cost on to students Ö but we feel students have been hit pretty hard,” Bruininks said.

He added that tuition has increased 40 percent in the past five years, and students experienced a double-digit increase the past two years. In November, the University Board of Regents approved a 4.5 percent tuition increase for each of the next two years to keep tuition increases at a minimum.

Wage freeze

Bruininks expressed concern with the possibility of being forced into a wage freeze for University faculty and staff.

“The last thing you want to do is freeze wages,” Bruininks said. “It’s terribly disruptive, it lowers morale and it puts us at a competitive disadvantage.”

Although no wage-freeze proposal has been introduced in the House, Sen. Dick Day, R-Owatonna, is scheduled to propose a two-year freeze on wages of all public employees in Minnesota today.

Bruininks said although the Legislature does not have legal authority to force the University to freeze wages, the Legislature might not grant the University enough flexibility.

“(The University’s) economy is a very complex economy, and you need maximum flexibility to handle this economy,” Bruininks said. “The University of Minnesota is major league, and we don’t want to become a farm team.”

Libby George covers politics and welcomes comments at [email protected]