U’s Infante looks back on his career

by Kelly Wittman

While he was a student at the University of Texas at Austin, Ettore Infante had a professor who could not pronounce his first name. Every day the professor would struggle to roll the name off his tongue, until one day in exasperation he declared, “Now your name is Jim.” The name has stuck ever since.
That is the name by which University Vice President Infante has been known during his 12 years at the University. He has spent those years in administrative positions here. But in April he announced he would not renew his contract when it expires June 30. Instead, Infante will return to teaching and research in mathematics, the field in which he was trained.
Infante came to the United States from his native Italy as an undergraduate. He received both his undergraduate and graduate degrees in mathematics.
After finishing his doctorate at the University of Texas, he taught math at Brown University and worked for the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C., before coming to the University of Minnesota in 1984.
Jim Infante’s first position at the University was dean of the Institute of Technology. He was promoted to vice president in 1991.
Before the provost system was introduced, Infante said, the vice presidency and academics were intertwined.
Now that the provostal system is in place, the vice president’s job is becoming more and more administrative. With the new system, most of the academic administration falls on the shoulders of the three provosts. The vice presidency has become more of a strictly number-crunching administrative position, he said.
“It’s not to my taste,” he said of the strictly financial administrative work.
Now is the appropriate time to make a change, Infante said, or he would feel obligated to stay another two years as vice president. The provostal system has had time to develop, and Infante’s role in lobbying for funds for this legislative session is over. He felt it was time to move on.
Donna Peterson, director of institutional relations, has worked with Infante every legislative session since he became vice president. She said Infante was a strong, consistent representative for the University to the Legislature. Peterson describes Infante as trustworthy and honest.
“In terms of the Legislature,” she said, “he gave representatives the feeling that they could trust he was giving them the straight story. It made for a better relationship with the Legislature,” she said.
Infante has his own list of things he is proud to have accomplished during his time as vice president.
The initiative to improve undergraduate education and retention is one of the programs to which Infante is glad to have contributed. The University has also seen the beginning of five major research centers on campus during Infante’s tenure, as well as an increased role of the Institute of Technology in the greater scientific community.
Infante is also pleased that even though the University has had a limited budget in recent years, the institution has managed to bring in outside resources.
Florence Funk, executive assistant for Academic Affairs, mentioned a well-known stunt the vice president used to generate funds for IT. Infante was a smoker for 38 years before making a deal with a University benefactor: he would quit smoking if she gave $50,000 to a project.
In addition to a catalogue of successes, Infante said he also has a list of mistakes that he wouldn’t make again.
In 1989, an audit of the computer science department revealed $24,411 in furniture and electronics purchased with University money which ended up in the homes of three professors. Auditors also discovered $41,000 in extra salary payments.
The three professors were required to return more than $20,000 in property and pay.
“As a result, three active faculty members left the University,” Infante said. “I regretted their leaving, but they would have had to change their ways if they were going to stay.”
“Troublesome” is how Infante describes the commotion over the U.S. Army’s granting large contracts for research, primarily involving the Minnesota Supercomputer Center. “In retrospect it was the right thing to do,” he said of the contract.
The Minnesota Supercomputer Center was started by the University and held as a quasi-private company until the center’s sale to Cray Inc. in 1994.
The center drew charges of conflict of interest when it was announced in 1992 that the University would spend $32 million on services from the center without taking bids from other companies. Infante was on the board of the supercomputer center during this time.
“The appropriate time for the University to own (the supercomputer center) had passed,” Infante said. “We learned when a public entity owns a subsidiary and wishes to compete in a public market, for which you need a level of secrecy, it is difficult, if not impossible, to maintain.”
But Richard Pfutzenreuter, associate vice president for the Office of Budget and Finance, said Infante has been loyal to the University. “He broke his back, always thinking of the institution.”
Pfutzenreuter, who has worked with Infante almost every day for the last three years, had not spent any time working in higher education when he first came to the University. “I learned everything I know from him,” Pfutzenreuter said.