Bruininks talks Big Ten, budget and apples

Rappin’ with Robert: a Q&A with President Bob Bruininks.

Luke Feuerherm

University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks sat down with The Minnesota Daily last week to talk about his controversial budget plan that was passed by the Board of Regents and other recent events that have kept both the University and the Big Ten in the news.

The Board of Regents approved your budget last week and, with it, a 4.4-percent tuition increase. You’ve mentioned that the stimulus runs out and state funds have continually decreased. Is it realistic to keep increasing aid and how?
There isn’t a single answer to the rising costs of education. We have to use our resources better. We have to cut our costs as much as possible. We have to put incentives in place so students can graduate on a timely basis.
If a student graduates in four — rather than five — years, they save probably $25,000 for themselves or their families; and we need to continue to provide need-based aid so that we can properly discount the cost of education for students that have financial need. I think the University has done as well in this area as any college or university across the United States. It has allowed us to keep the net cost increase at about 3 percent a year in the last nine years.
Now, that’s not a total solution. I think the state has to return to a better level of support for the University of Minnesota, but I think the combination of better state support and continued work to raise private funds and reallocate some other existing funds will keep tuition much more affordable, especially for students who have the greater financial need.

Both you and Gov. Tim Pawlenty are nearing the end of your terms. Do you think a change in the governorship will result in a change in funding?
I think it’s possible. Gov. Pawlenty respects the University of Minnesota. He is a fiscal conservative, and he has a particular point of view he felt very strongly about during this period. But in the context of the state’s investment, I think there are many areas where he did provide some support. I wish he had cut the University far less during this period than he did, and I think we could’ve made some of the fiscal decisions in the state of Minnesota in a better way to protect the University of Minnesota and higher education.
But I think we can look forward with some optimism for a couple of reasons. I think the economy will get better. I think people will have a reasoned discussion about reforming the state’s tax system so it works better and is more consistent in providing the revenues we need to support everything that is important in the state. But the next governor will have many of the same challenges Gov. Pawlenty had for the last eight years.

As you near the end of your presidency, what are some specific things you’re working to get done before you move on?
I have some projects I’d really like to finish. Some of those are academic, some are obviously related to the capital needs of the University.
I am very interested in finishing Northrop. Northrop is a very challenging project, but it is at the center of cultural and academic life at the University and a very big center of education and cultural life for the state of Minnesota. It’s one of the most iconic buildings in the state, and we’re perilously close to closing it because it cannot support the kind of work we do. That would be a tragedy, so I am out trying to raise private money with people here at the University to see if we can find a way to keep the vision of Northrop alive.
I’d like to finish some other smaller projects, but that’s one of the biggest ones. I’m very interested in making further progress on the recreational sports opportunities for our students. I think health and wellness is a really important part of being an academic community.
We need to continue to raise private funding to support the University’s academic mission, so I’ve got a half-a-dozen major projects I’m working with people on, ranging from brain development throughout the lifespan, arts in the community, engineering in medicine, just to name a few. One of the most exciting areas is the whole connection between foods and health. So I’ve got some of these broader academic initiatives, interdisciplinary initiatives that I want to see strengthened in this next year.

There was a meeting of Big Ten presidents this month, and the conference decided to expand by bringing in Nebraska. What other schools were considered and what goes into those decisions?
We have not gone out to recruit schools to the Big Ten. We have indicated to other schools that we’re open to universities that are similar to the University of Minnesota and other universities in the Big Ten. Any school or any university that wants to enter into a discussion, the Big Ten is open to those discussions. But we’re not just looking to expand the Big Ten. I have no idea how this will turn out, but right now we have 12 teams. I can’t always reconcile why we call a conference with 12 teams the Big Ten.

Any talks of a name change?
No, I think it’s quite certain that we will keep the brand of the Big Ten, and that’s a historic reference to a conference that has been remarkably stable.

The SweeTango has been in the news recently. How does the handling of the apple fit into the University’s model of both generating revenue for further research, as well as benefiting the state?
Well, we do benefit the state. You know, about 90 percent of all the apples developed since 1920 have been developed here at the University of Minnesota. Some of these are world-leading varieties that are now grown in places like Australia and New Zealand and other parts of the world.
First of all, it takes more than 25 years to create a new apple. When we discover something like SweeTango, we have an obligation to make sure that we release it in a way to protect its quality.
The second thing is it costs money to develop the SweeTango apple, and that cost has to be partially recovered from revenues that come with licensing it to the outside world.
And thirdly, I believe we have an obligation to also help the growers in Minnesota, and so SweeTango was made available to 80 growers in the state. So I believe we have handled it well. I know there’s some controversy about it, and it may actually reach the courts, and the courts will have to resolve the issue.

You’ve mentioned projects like the Biomedical Discovery District as a means of attracting “world class faculty,” but in next year’s budget, faculty received pay reductions and furloughs. What part of maintaining “world class faculty’’ is facilities and what part is salaries?
I think they are both important. You can’t just work on one. You have to pay competitive salaries and compensation, and the current environment makes me worried about the ability to keep up in that area.
But I can tell you, you will not get the people you need in science and engineering, and even, I’d say, in the art and humanities and social sciences unless they have the kind of space they need to do their work. It isn’t just the people in the biomedical sciences that we’re talking about, and they are not going to stay at a university that neglects attention to capital investment.
So we have to balance all of these interests. You can’t just build buildings and neglect people in a place like this. You have to pay attention to people first, and I think we’re doing that, and I think we have the right balance.

Anything else our readers should know?
I want to say something about the TCF Bank Stadium.
When we set out to build the stadium and bring it back to campus, where I felt it belonged, we wanted to do it in a way that I felt complemented and supported our academic mission. So from the first gift we solicited for the stadium, I made it a big priority to raise academic money at the same time.
And if you look at the numbers, we raised $46 million directly from private contributions for academic purposes and we raised another roughly $25 million through the naming gift for student support. So that’s close to $70 million dollars. We raised $90 million for the bricks and mortar and the build-out of the stadium, and we raised $70 million for the academic mission.
[The] second thing is, we did not want to serve alcohol in the general seating area, but we were willing to build the stadium to provide modest alcohol service in preferred seating areas. The Legislature decided that wasn’t a very good idea about four years after our plan was made public, and that is costing us roughly $1.5 million a year in revenue. But to me, it’s more important to keep faith with our commitment to have a roughly alcohol-free environment than it is to try and make a few hundred thousand dollars serving alcohol everywhere in the stadium.
If you were to build a beer garden at the stadium, you’d have to put it next to the Tribal Nations Plaza and the Veterans Memorial. I think that’s an absolute travesty, and no other place in the Big Ten serves alcohol in the general seating area.
So the University has not been a part of these discussions in St. Paul, and we have steadfastly refused to be part of lobbying the Legislature on this issue.
Our issues are academic; it’s not whether we drink beer in the stadium.