After a tumultuous year, Bruininks reflects

In the 12 months of his presidency, Bruininks has faced flagging state support and rioting students.

Paul Sand

One year ago, University President Robert Bruininks was set to take a year-long sabbatical. Bruininks said he planned to research K-12 and higher education policies in former communist countries before returning to teach at the University.

“I think it would have worked,” he said, “but something else happened on the way to my sabbatical.”

That something was Bruininks assuming the role of 15th University president.

The University Board of Regents appointed Bruininks in November following a nationwide five-month search for candidates. Bruininks served as interim president after Mark Yudof left the University in July to become chancellor in the University of Texas system.

In the first year of his presidency, Bruininks has faced a multitude of challenges, such as shrinking state support for the University, high-profile lawsuits and, more recently, rioting on and around the campus.

For all the challenges facing the University, Bruininks said he remains optimistic about his and the University’s future.

“Every period of a great University or every period of your life present great challenges,” he said, “and if you work well with other people, there are some opportunities for real renewal, real change.”

Some of the most immediate changes might come in University policy following the hockey riots.

University administration will draft a policy, related to the student conduct code, directly addressing off-campus riotous behavior, Bruininks said.

“It’s something that must be dealt with very severely,” he said.

Despite administration attempts to offer programs for students, such as viewing the championship game on a big screen at Mariucci Arena, Bruininks said the alternatives failed to prevent rioting.

“We felt that if we had some new things, provided some positive outlets and beefed up security, we felt things would get better,” he said. “We were wrong.”

Bruininks said he hopes University student leaders will have an influence in changing campus culture – including stemming any future riots.

“The students on this campus can have more influence on these events than even the police, fire department or senior University officers,” he said.

Bruininks said there was no policy change after last year’s hockey riots because administrators had an optimistic belief rioting would not occur again.

“There probably should have been (a change in policy),” he said.

The University’s hard-line stance against rioting is not influenced by legislative reaction, but rather the severity and premeditation of this year’s riots, Bruininks said.

State House members have discussed eliminating state financial aid for students convicted of riot-related crimes.

Because this year’s rioting comes at a time when the amount of state funding for the University is expected to decrease, campus officials have stepped up lobbying at the State Capitol.

While Bruininks said some legislators are concerned with the rioting, many still support of the University.

“I think the University has a great relationship with the leaders in the Legislature,” he said.

Bills proposed in the House and Senate include more higher education funding than Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s proposed $185 million reduction.

Bruininks said the House bill would give the institution an additional $22 million over the next two years. With that money, he said, the University would reduce departmental budget cuts, invest in student life and reduce the tuition increase.

Despite the differences in proposed allocations for higher education, Bruininks said he does not think the Legislature will go into special session.

“The longer you take to balance the budget, the more days that go by, the more difficult it is to actually achieve – you have to actually cut deeper to achieve the same things,” he said.

Even with tight legislative timelines, Bruininks said he will continue to push for more higher education support.

“You cannot be a state with a vibrant economy and a good quality of life without investing substantially in education – including higher education,” he said.

Bruininks said he is worried that public higher education took some of the deepest cuts in the state’s proposed budget. Education is becoming more important with advances in technology and needs continued investment, he said.

“This is not a time to be shy and timid about investing in the very things we know are going to be critically important to the survival of our state and our quality of life,” he said.

While the University’s financial situation might have unpredictable long-term consequences, Bruininks said he likes to focus on the good news at the institution.

“There’s a reason to feel very, very good about the University today, and I think even more reason to feel optimistic about the University’s future,” he said.

Bruininks cited the University’s record number of grants and undergraduate applications, and he said the University’s two Rhodes Scholars and consecutive hockey championships are positives.

The University is also celebrating a successful six-year fundraising campaign, Bruininks said. Campaign Minnesota set out to raise $1.3 billion and has raised $1.65 billion with two months to spare. Much of the money is in long-term endowments.

“I expect students 50 years from now will derive enormous benefit from the donors of this campaign,” he said.

As for Bruininks’ future, he said he didn’t want to speculate on the length of his presidency but alluded to national averages, which show university presidential terms end after three to four years.

“It’s not a position you can stay in for a long, long time,” he said.

While Bruininks said he has taught the occasional class since joining the administration, he plans to return to teaching after his time as president is finished.

“I want to end my career the way I started it,” Bruininks said.

The writers welcome comments at [email protected] and [email protected]