Bruininks discusses light rail, politics

Ahnalese Rushmann

.The Daily sat down with University President Bob Bruininks at Morrill Hall on Tuesday to discuss political fever hitting Minnesota and how the University factors into it.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s bonding plan proposal offers $129 million for University building projects, such as the Folwell Hall renovation, a new science classroom and student services center. What was your reaction to this figure?

Gov. Pawlenty’s recommendations were a good start on the capital bill, but I believe the University needs a stronger level of funding to meet its needs at the present time. We asked for roughly $225 million from the state and he provided a recommendation supporting many of our priorities at close to $139 million, so I’m going to work really hard with the faculty, staff and students and friends of the University to raise that level of funding.

You’ve recently been very vocal about supporting a state gas tax and comprehensive transportation bill. How would this affect students?

The governor’s recommendation on the capital projects included many more transportation-related projects than is typically the case – probably five times as much funding for bridges, $70 million for the Central Corridor light-rail system.

People who use these roads ought to be paying more for their maintenance and we haven’t adjusted the level of inflation in the gas tax since 1988 and repair of these roads and bridges costs more and more every year, and we’re relying on a source of revenue that’s too low.

We need to find new sources of revenue, preferably a dedicated sales tax for transit and an increase in the gas tax for roads and bridges. Otherwise what happens is that these infrastructure needs of the state get placed in the bonding bill, which crowds out badly needed investment for local governments and for our colleges and universities.

What happens if the Legislature does not increase higher education funding in the upcoming session?

One inevitable consequence is we have to delay some of our repairs and some of our construction. Secondly, we might, in some emergency cases, have to divert academic resources (or resources to support our academic programs) to maintain our buildings and classrooms and I think we already are stretched in that area.

Going back to the Central Corridor, that project has implications for the University as the light rail would run through campus above ground or underground. What are your hopes for the project?

We believe quite strongly that if this train goes at grade on the surface of Washington Avenue, it will create tremendous traffic gridlock here at the University of Minnesota, pose serious safety problems for the people that work here, and make the train very, very inefficient because of delays, causing a loss of ridership.

I proposed in November that we revisit a suggestion the University made in 2001. That suggestion was to consider a possible northern routing of the train, perhaps down University Avenue and a return to Minneapolis down Fourth Street.

First, it may substantially lower costs. Second, it will not cause the same traffic disruption that the above-grade option on Washington Avenue will cause. Thirdly, I believe it will serve a very substantial number of people.

Are you saying it would be impossible for the light rail to run on the surface of Washington Avenue?

I don’t think it’s impossible, but I do believe it would be very costly to the University. I think it would ultimately cost the community far more to build it on grade than to find some alternatives.

The problem you have at the University is there’s virtually no outlet for that traffic … you don’t have a set of parallel side streets where you can divert this traffic very effectively.

If you consider the total costs of dealing with the traffic and making sure that people are safe in crossing the streets, I believe the costs of addressing those issues by building new streets, extending streets, doing all the things you would have to do, would cost at least as much as the tunnel.

A number of presidential candidates and their high-profile supporters have visited the Twin Cities this week, with more scheduled for the upcoming days. With caucuses on Tuesday, what are your hopes for student involvement?

If you look at election trends over the past 20-25 years, there’s been a tendency, except for a year or two during this period, for young people to largely disengage from state and local politics and, in some cases, even the national elections, so I would like to see much stronger participation of our students in the electoral process.

We shouldn’t leave politics and the serious decisions of our democracy only to people of my age group.

As University president, you can’t take political sides, even though some issues you’re for or against may align you with a particular party. How do you maintain neutrality?

It’s sometimes difficult.

I don’t find that the interests of the University or the priorities of the University divide along party lines, so I think it’s my responsibility, first and foremost, to represent the interests of the University of Minnesota.

It’s simply not tenable for me, as the president of the University of Minnesota, to be highly partisan in my positions.

I do go to the polls and I do vote and I exercise my right to vote and I take that very, very seriously. But in this position, I think I serve the University’s interests well by remaining independent of particular political candidates and parties.

Is it tempting to come out and support or condemn a politician at times?

Well, it is tempting. I do believe at my very core and throughout my life I’ve been a political progressive. I do believe in investing in the public interest, and so that often puts me at odds with people. I’ve openly debated with Gov. Pawlenty on tax policy and other issues while respecting many of his other positions.

The Republican National Convention is coming to the area in September. How will this spotlight on Minnesota affect the University and its students?

Students obviously have a great opportunity to get engaged in the political process directly; they have the opportunity to hear from people and to question their positions and to think about their own preferences when it comes to voting for these candidates.

It also encourages us to ask hard questions about what we need to do as a country to preserve our democracy, to strengthen our democracy, to make sure that we pass on a world to future generations that is at least as good as the one we inherited.

It will add a lot of interest to the election itself and to the public discussion that surrounds it.

You recently signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment. What does this mean and why should students be proud of the school’s participation?

I have long been interested in these issues. I was once a wilderness canoe guide. I spent a lot of my time in the northern regions of Minnesota, on the edge of the wilderness area. I have a deep, passionate, and abiding interest in the environment and our duty to preserve it.

We felt, when we examined the Presidents Climate Commitment, that this commitment was consistent with the academic investments we had made, the Board’s sustainability policy, and the other actions that we had taken over a roughly seven- to-ten year period.

You’re never at a loss for words on issues and you used to teach. Would you ever consider holding office hours so students could come in and talk to you?

I’d love to do it. My problem is I’m overscheduled and under-timed.

I regularly meet with student groups and student leaders and I occasionally wander in a classroom to see if I can still engage in some useful discussion with students. But I’d be very happy to find other outlets to meet with students.