Searching for a crusader

The new U president needs to be a passionate advocate for students.

by Editorial board

This fall, University of Minnesota Regents will appoint a successor to President Bob Bruininks, the most powerful figure at the University holding one of the most influential public positions in the state. His replacement needs to be, above all, a crusader for the UniversityâÄôs mission of public higher education.

President BruininksâÄô eight-year tenure has shown how deeply one person can change this institution. His administration erased the General College and brought in research dollars âÄî whose expenditures jumped 20 percent between 2004 and 2007 âÄî through a lofty strategic positioning plan that seeks to place the University among the top three public research institutions in the world. Record amounts of private money helped erect buildings âÄî including an on-campus stadium âÄî and put low and middle income students through college. Minority enrollment has increased and so too has the number and quality of applicants. Bruininks, if nothing else, has been a visionary and ambitious leader.

The next leader needs to focus that ambition on the UniversityâÄôs core values. In his 2007 State of the University address, Bruininks said the vision of that strategic positioning plan would diminish if one of its four pillars crumbled: excellent students, excellent faculty, exceptional organization and exceptional innovation. The next president should be someone willing to focus on the UniversityâÄôs core mission before building pillars. That mission is research and discovery, teaching and learning, along with outreach and public service.

The presidential search committee outlined a document of characteristics in the next president, and weâÄôd like to see it place special emphasis on a few of those. The next president should indeed have an “unwavering commitment” to the tenants of the UniversityâÄôs mission, they should be an effective communicator, they should have intellectual credibility and, perhaps most important, the next president should understand how to work with a public governing body.

Under Bruininks, undergraduate tuition rates on this campus have nearly doubled as state support for the University diminished profoundly, a trend not isolated to Minnesota. State lawmakers across the nation are foreclosing on our future in voting down funding for our public higher education institutions in a global, service economy that demands more college graduates than ever before. The next president should, as the committeeâÄôs statement says, be a creative public and private fundraiser. Bruininks has done well in bringing private scholarship money to the University, championing such programs as the U Promise Free Tuition Scholarship and middle-income scholarships.

Still, scholarships are Band-Aids given to select groups. The next president should be able to effectively raise public money for everyone in this public institution. The current administrationâÄôs goal of being one of the top three public research institutions in the world and then claiming that rankings donâÄôt actually matter must be confounding to state lawmakers, trying to assess whether a vote for the University is a vote for their constituents. The next leader needs to concentrate BruininksâÄô ambition into measurable goals that will produce good for the state, like technology transfers and âÄî dare we say âÄî better salaries for the TAs disseminating knowledge in the ever-crowding lecture halls. We need a leader willing to convince lawmakers to lower tuition rates for everyone, to make this public institution less private.

What if we had a crusader for students? Seriously. What if the next president of this institution was willing to advocate for lower tuition and more education much in the same way former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Eric Magnuson stumped across the state rallying against funding cuts to the judicial system? Is there a candidate with BruininksâÄô ambition for prestige, focused on a mission of public education and access? We truly hope so.