Bruininks talks funding, middle-class students

.The Daily sat down with University President Bob Bruininks on Monday at Morrill Hall to discuss state funding, middle-class students and a bleak job market.

Last week, the state House and Senate passed bonding bills that support University efforts like the biomedical science program and a new science classrooms and student services building. What happens next for something like Folwell Hall, funding for which was cut out of both bills?

What’s next for the buildings or the parts of the request that didn’t get funded is that they will naturally roll over to the next request, and so I expect Folwell to be a very high priority in the next capital request. It is not uncommon to go back more than one year for a request. In fact, that is typical.

Does the University ask for more than what they know they’ll get, for cushion?

You never ask for more than you need or you can afford to fund yourself because the University has an obligation in the capital bonding process to fund one-third of the cost of building renovations or new buildings.

You also try to gauge the size of the request in relation to the state’s bonding capacity. So it’s rare to get everything you ask for. It’s only happened once in my history here.

There’s been some criticism of projects like the Bell Museum, the shopping center acquisition for the Northside Partnership and of course, TCF Bank Stadium – costly things people don’t see as academic priorities. What would you say to critics of these “satellite projects?”

I think these aren’t satellite projects.

Let me start with the football stadium.

I expected when I put my neck on the line for this that I would get criticism. You get the criticism that you don’t care about the academic mission for the University. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We’ve raised most of the money privately. We’ve leveraged the fundraising requests for the University of Minnesota’s football stadium to raise academic gifts. In fact, the seating preferences in the new stadium will actually give credit to people who give academic gifts to the University of Minnesota.

It’s all about reminding people when they come here that this is an academic institution.

Now let’s talk about the Northside. We are a research, education and land-grant University – a great University. And that means to me that we have to care about solving some of the most important and challenging problems in our society. I think poverty is right at the top of the list.

This is an effort to take our research and our education programs out into the community. We do that in the areas of environment, ecology, we do it in health care. Why wouldn’t we do it to try to improve the welfare of an entire community?

We’re in about 40 such locations throughout the state of Minnesota – in greater Minnesota with research stations, clinics. So this is not a new thing for the University of Minnesota, to conduct a lot of its activity off the University campus.

Now let’s talk about the Bell Museum.

If it was called Bell Hall or Bell Laboratory, nobody would have any problem with it.

This is a place where people did the pioneering research to save the peregrine falcon, where they unlocked some of the mysteries that had to do with genetic deformities in different plants and animals. So this is an active area of research and education at the University of Minnesota.

These are not tangential projects. I think they’re very much in keeping with the mission, the spirit, the values of the University of Minnesota and I’ve been pleased to support them. I’m even more pleased to defend them.

Going back to the football stadium, there are always a lot of businesses coming and going in Stadium Village, and that will likely continue with the completion of the stadium. What are your hopes for business in that area?

I think it’s going to revitalize the businesses in that area, bring in more restaurants, bring in more night life. I think it’s going to be good for the local economy, and the business people that I’ve talked to are thrilled about it.

More important to me, I want families and young people coming to the University of Minnesota.

I want them to see firsthand what we do in places like the Bell Museum, the Weisman Art museum, the laboratories of the University of Minnesota.

I don’t expect everybody to agree with it but I just happen to think that in the long term, it’s going to serve the University’s interests.

Have you heard of any specific business plans for that area?

Some people are planning some new housing. About four blocks from the stadium, I think there will be a new housing development right along the edge of Dinkytown.

If we succeed in locating the light rail and get it successfully positioned through the University campus, I think that too will add a lot of vitality to this area of the metropolitan community.

Speaking of the light rail, the Metropolitan Council chose a final Central Corridor plan that doesn’t include an underground tunnel. What’s the University’s next focus with that project?

The transportation system in and around the University is already fragile enough. So any investment in this area has to materially improve … the safety of our transportation systems in the University community.

We agreed with some reluctance to support further study of an above-grade option on Washington Avenue, but we proposed a pedestrian mall that would be built in such a way to remove the vehicular traffic, the buses and cars and move those to other places around the campus.

In addition, we proposed that we seriously undertake the study of what we call the Northern Alignment.

We have agreed to pay for that study and we have agreed to issue a contract to conduct that study in the next two weeks.

There’s just a lot of work to do and not a lot of time to get it done.

I read a study last week predicting a coming peak in the number of U.S. high school graduates, followed by a decline until 2015, which would possibly mean fewer college applications and less admissions competition. If that proves true, how will the University remain competitive for top students?

I do not believe that will hurt the Twin Cities campus. Every year, our applications are growing at a pretty rapid rate, faster than the increase in high school graduates.

I do believe that the demographic decline will adversely affect a number of institutions of higher education. But the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities campus – I think its reputation is improving every year, its quality is improving every year. It will continue, I think, to be affordable to the range of students we’re trying to attract.

Going off the same study, experts anticipate a decline in affluent high school graduates and an increase in poor and working-class ones. While the University has done a lot of scholarship fundraising for low-income students, you said in your State of the University address last week that affordable tuition for middle-class students is a priority. How will you implement that?

I’ve argued that financial need ought to be taken into consideration with every scholarship that we negotiate with a private donor; that we ought to approach our state to see if we can come up with some strategies for providing more financial support for middle-income students.

I want to take some responsibility with other leaders in higher education to see if we can restructure loan programs and scholarship programs for middle income students, particularly for students who are headed for careers that are in very short supply.

When I was a student in the early 1960s, I had a National Defense (Education) Act loan. I went into elementary, secondary and college teaching and because I did that, for every year that I worked, I made a loan payment and they canceled an equal amount. That, to me, is one of many ways I think we can reach larger numbers of middle-income families.

The U.S. Labor Department estimated 63,000 jobs were lost in February. What was your reaction to that news?

Economists say this is likely to be a relatively short downturn.

My advice to students is, get yourself prepared. If you can, get yourself into internships, fully explore the job market, make sure you improve your credentials, get the kinds of recommendations you need to position yourself well in this more challenging market.

Time is clearly on your side. Most of us are getting older and are starting to retire, and the predictions of labor economists are that in the next few years, we’re actually going to have serious labor shortages, particular in high-skill fields.

I’m encouraging our students to hang in there and to remain pretty optimistic.