The ‘good soldier’ becomes the General

In his first four years, the University president battled budget deficits and fought for reform.EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a two-part series about Bob Bruininks. Wednesday’s story looked at his path to the presidency.

Bryce Haugen

Slowly rising through the University ranks over nearly 40 years, the generally low-key Bob Bruininks developed a reputation for masterfully implementing tough policy.

When he became president in 2002, many people expected “the good soldier,” as his wife put it, to serve as a caretaker rather than a mover and shaker.

“That amused those of us who worked with him,” said Mary Jo Kane, chairwoman of the University kinesiology department, who considers Bruininks a mentor and friend. “We sort of rolled our eyes and said, ‘these people have no idea what they’re talking about.'”

Regents already knew Bruininks well, said Maureen Reed, the Board chairwoman in 2002. That’s one of the reasons they disregarded a nationwide search effort and named a president – who never applied for the job – from within.

What about Bob?:
– Former University President Mark Yudof delegated the decision to shut down the University during a winter storm to Bruininks, fearful Minnesotans would never respect the decision of a “weenie” from Texas. During Yudof’s five-year term, and his own nearly five-year tenure, Bruininks has never canceled classes because of the weather.
– He is often tailed by an entourage. Usually Lynn Holleran, associate to the vice president and chief of staff and/or University News Service Director Dan Wolter join him at meetings and other work functions.
– Among other international and domestic countries, he has traveled to China and Norway.
– Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., Lincoln, Kennedy and former vice president Hubert H. Humphrey, inspire him.
– In the past 40 years, the closest he has ever come to leaving Minnesota is when he considered applying – but never did – for a position at the University of Vermont, he said. “I never felt comfortable applying for a job or asking someone to consider me for a position unless I was really committed to it. I don’t like to play games with searches Ö I’ve been really happy here.”

“The Board was in no mood to choose a caretaker,” Reed said. “And they didn’t. And they know they didn’t.”

After more than four years in office, Bruininks maintains the support of the majority of people on campus.

According to a Minnesota Daily survey conducted last month, 63 percent of students, staff and faculty members said they approve of the way the “president is handling his job,” while 22 disapprove and 15 percent had no opinion.

A tough honeymoon

The state enjoyed healthy finances during the presidency of his immediate predecessor, but significant shortfalls emerged in the first few months of Bruininks’ tenure.

A $185 million cut in state funding – a two-year $250 million problem if inflationary increases are considered – eliminated the prospect of a honeymoon for the new president, as he noted in his inaugural address four years ago. The largest budget-balancing puzzle in University history ensued, prompting a record 15 percent tuition hike and employee wage freeze.

In fall 2003, about 800 members of the University’s clerical workers union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, went on strike for two weeks to protest the freeze.

“I think we were right in saying that it wasn’t a budget crisis, but a crisis of priorities,” said union leader Gladys McKenzie, co-founder of AFSCME Local 3800 and chief negotiator during the strike.

“Rather than finding a way to make the staff of the University a priority, (Bruininks) has taken the path of least resistance Ö It’s a sign of the relative value of the work force to the University.”

Bruniniks on politics:
Along with the administrative duties, University presidents have always played politician. Besides promoting the University’s budget and capital investment requests, Bruininks occasionally testifies on K-12 issues. “I’ve been much more active at the Capitol than most presidents,” he said. But he won’t touch the question of who he supported for governor with a 10-foot pole. “I think there’s a surgeon general’s warning that it could be injurious to my health,” he joked. Bruininks said he doesn’t identify with a party and has voted for Republicans and Democrats, though he stopped donating to campaigns years ago. “I’m very much a political indepedent,” he said. “I’m deeply troubled by the growing polarization of politics.”

Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, served as chairman of the House Higher Education Finance Committee during the 2005 budget cycle, when the University received a nearly $106 million funding boost. “I think he’s a strong leader,” Nornes said of Bruininks. “I don’t have any doubts about the validity or factfullness of what he tells the committee. I trust him.”

Bruininks, who dropped his car allowance during the funding crunch, contends the University made its best possible offer, noting six out of seven unions successfully avoided strikes.

By 2004, the University had successfully weathered the storm, Bruininks said, increasing academic competitiveness and retaining faculty members through difficult and creative solutions.

“We determined that we would use adversity,” he said, “as a springboard to improve the long-term future of the University.”

Without tremendous leadership from “the hardest worker I know,” improvement couldn’t have happened, said Robert Jones, senior vice president for system administration and one of the first people Bruininks hired as provost a decade ago.

The budget crisis also spurred the broadest reorganization in the University’s modern history. The final plan, adopted by the Board of Regents and nearly unanimously recommended by the University Senate, reorganized several colleges for the 2006-07 school year. The plan also established a goal of becoming one of the top three public research institutions in the world within a decade.

Controversial merger

Most controversially, Bruininks’ strategic positioning plan transformed the General College into a department in the new College of Education and Human Development. Opponents passionately petitioned to keep the college independent, arguing that closure would decrease University diversity and access for low-income students.

At the time, some students labeled Bruininks a racist or an elitist, while strategic positioning supporters hailed him as a courageous visionary.

Bruininks on leadership:
Bruininks just finished reading a couple of books about Abraham Lincoln. The University president said he in some ways models his leadership style after the former U.S. president. For his Cabinet, Lincoln “selected people who had actually been his rivals,” Bruninink said. “He reached out to people with enormous talent, integrity and independence Ö I celebrate differences of opinion. I don’t look for people who are clones that think like I do. I look for people who often make me uncomfortable because of the strength of their views and their willingness to not only challenge me, but one another.”

One outspoken opponent of the closure, former Minnesota Student Association Emily Serafy Cox, first met Bruininks when she helped stage a sit-in outside his office to support the 2003 clerical worker strike. Bruininks eventually agreed to meet with the uninvited guests, and they respectfully discussed their differences of opinion, said Serafy Cox, who spoke at a 2005 rally on behalf of GC, but didn’t join the sit-in to protest the closure.

Still, as respectful as the president is in personal interaction, Serafy Cox said she doesn’t quite understand the widespread adoration for him.

“I don’t agree with the vision so it’s hard for me to think of him as a visionary,” she said. “And he didn’t envision it all himself.”

That’s something Bruininks often admits, declining to take much credit for specific accomplishments beyond setting the right tone.

“People in my position get too much credit and too much blame,” he said. “My achievements have really been achievements of the entire University community.”

Kane, vice chairwoman of the University Senate and former leader in the Faculty Consultative Committee, said Bruininks – out of genuine concern and political astuteness – takes faculty input seriously.

Bruininks’ Salary:
In March, Bruininks received a 5 percent pay raise, bumping him to $384, 221 for academic year 2006-07. The Board of Regents voted unanimously in December to extend Bruininks contract through 2011. The deal included a 10 percent pay raise for 2007-08, to $423,000 and a 7.5 percent raise for 2008-09, to $455,000. Bruininks contract indicates that the Board of Regents will determine salary increases for subsequent years at a future meeting. Even with the raises, Bruininks will still make less money than more than half of his fellow Big Ten presidents.

“I’ve never made my compensation an issue and I’m not going to,” Bruininks said. “I feel I’m fairly compensated.” He said he agreed with the Board’s logic that the University of “Minnesota should not develop a reputation for having the lowest compensation level for its chief executive.” The contract also provides University housing at Eastcliff and a deferred compensation package totaling $150,000 in 2007-08 and increasing by $25,000 in each subsequent year. After the 2003 budget cuts, Bruininks eliminated 14 administrators’ car allowances, including his own.

“He consults broadly before he makes a decision,” she said, adding that he has amassed an “A team” of administrators.

At times, Bruininks also allows student input to impact policy, said current MSA president Max Page, citing strategic positioning implementation and recent revisions to the student conduct code.

“It’s unprecedented the amount of support he’s offered to give us,” Page said.

Bruininks definitely has a different style than his predecessor, Mark Yudof, said Richard Pfutzenreuter, University chief financial officer.

“Bob is much more inclusive and not afraid to change his mind based on new information,” said Pfutzenreuter, a Bruininks colleague since 1992.

AFSCME’s McKenzie contrasted Bruininks and the previous president from a different perspective. She said Yudof was “a bit more straightforward.”

“He basically wasn’t afraid to tell it like it is, didn’t sugarcoat it and at the same time was as responsive (to our concerns) as he could be,” she said.

The union, McKenzie said, is lucky to even get a face-to-face meeting with Bruininks.

Leaving a legacy

Bruininks defends, often passionately, the tough decisions he’s made, and he said he can’t think of any serious regrets.

He considers the expansion of University scholarship programs amid rising tuition one of his greatest achievements, right up there with securing an on-campus football stadium and the planned expansion of business schools on two campuses. Other notable accomplishments include emphasizing administrative accountability, revamping the University extension service, creating a cabinet-level position to promote diversity and developing comprehensive, system-wide master plans.

That list, Bruininks and some colleagues said, just scratches the surface.

“There are few people anywhere that could have accomplished what this president has,” Kane said. “He’s been innovative, he’s been groundbreaking.

“He will be considered the greatest modern president in the history of this University.”

Coming full circle

With his regular contract expiring next year, Bruininks can either step down or opt for a three-year extension. He said he plans to serve through 2011.

“I seriously doubt I will go beyond that,” Bruininks said.

“I know that 65 is the new 45 and I sort of feel that way, and I’m active Ö But I also have some academic interests and some personal interests that I’ll eventually want to pursue with more time and attention.”

He often talks about ending his career where he started: as an educational psychology professor. His contract guarantees a return to the position at any time.

“I still believe the best job at the University of Minnesota – the absolutely best job – is the job of a professor,” Bruininks said.

He also wants to spend more time at his paradise on Loon Lake in Minnesota’s Arrowhead. The now-modern cabin in no way resembles the modest fishing shack he started building in the early 1970s, said Richard Weatherman, a retired University professor who helped his long-time friend piece together the original structure.

Weatherman said he sometimes senses a desire in Bruininks to jump out of the “firing line” of the University and drop a fishing line.

“What you want to accomplish and what happens are often very different,” Weatherman said. “At 65, (Bruininks) has a different reality ahead of him than he had when he was 35. And Bob’s really reflective of that.”

At his own wise old age, one of the University president’s best friends knows, Bruininks doesn’t need a Weatherman to know which way the wind blows.