Speech was positive, glossed over negative

University President Bob Bruininks gave his State of the University address Thursday, mentioning both the challenges and the successes that face the University, while focusing on the positive. As is usually the case, most of what he discussed circled back to dollars and cents in the end.

While such issues are important, there are other topics we wish he had addressed, whether this required cutting the speech’s excesses or simply taking more time. Bruininks’ prepared speech glossed over some relevant topics and ignored others. He was, however, candid and honest in the question-and-answer session, which provided additional insight into his priorities.

The general theme of Bruininks’ speech was that the University is and will continue to be invaluable to Minnesota, the nation and world. Bruininks cited a recent Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs study that found for each state dollar invested, the University creates 16 times that in economic activity. In tough fiscal times it is important to remind the public how much the University benefits them.

After highlighting last year’s brightest achievements, Bruininks turned his speech toward his goals for the University’s future. He spent much time speaking about a new focus on interdisciplinary collaboration. He outlined some areas where synergy would only require a refocusing of current resources.

Bruininks also set forth similar goals in disciplines such as biosciences and renewable energy. While these science and medical-related projects will require new appropriations, it might be easier for the public to see them as worthy of their tax dollars.

While these ideas and their application are important, an average student probably would have been hard-pressed to stay awake during the speech. The problem was not Bruininks’ oratorical abilities, which are not lacking. Yesterday’s forum was designed for legislators, general public and faculty, not students. This might be what is expected of such an occasion, but it is unfortunate that Bruininks did not address other issues in greater depth or at all.

The last year has seen another tuition hike and hockey riot. Even harder to take were the tragedies, which included a missing student, meningitis death, plane crash and house fire, all which took the lives of members of our community. Most recently, the community lost its sense of security as an attacker abducted a young woman at gunpoint in broad daylight.

Bruininks and other officials often speak of the University community, especially when pushing a project they think will improve that community. This would have been a good occasion to point out that this has been a tough year, even aside from financial considerations. Losing members of our community has been difficult, not only on those who were close to them, but to everyone because it makes us all feel vulnerable.

Bruininks also chose not to mention the proposed football stadium. While not as grave as the loss of life, it affects many things.

The only one of these issues Bruininks addressed was the tuition hike, which he briefly mentioned. It had more implications, however, than those he discussed. As the first college graduate in his family, Bruininks expressed a desire to keep the University affordable for prospective students. While a valid concern, higher costs also affect current students. Students must work more to cover tuition, which results in higher stress, poorer academic performance and lower quality of life.

Not coincidentally, the tuition hike was the only pressing student issue that also relates back to University finances. During the question-and-answer portion, Bruininks did make financial issues more relevant to students. He was candid and honest, even when answering tough questions. He said the University needs to become more efficient so students and the public get more out of it. He argued that quality and performance do not need to be sacrificed to get this value.

The most relevant that thing Bruininks pointed out was the public perception that leads to state funding cuts, while partly based in merit, ignores the value the University brings to the state. Popular misconceptions are a public relations problem that all of us should work to fix. By doing so, all parties affected by the University will be helped.