Bruininks talks funding and fees

The University has shelved a plan that would have charged students according to major.

Conor Shine

As legislative budget bills near Gov. Mark DaytonâÄôs desk and the University of MinnesotaâÄôs financial planning kicks into high gear, President Bob Bruininks sat down with the Minnesota Daily to talk tuition, axed majors and federal indictments.
Legislative Republicans have released their higher education bills. Were you surprised by the severity of the cuts?
There are several things about these bills that are deeply disappointing. One is the size of the cut. I keep reminding people that this isnâÄôt a first-time, unique experience for the University of Minnesota.
We cut the University more than $110 million in the previous two years. WeâÄôre proposing to cut the University another $100 million âĦ This is the third time in less than 10 years where we have essentially whacked the UniversityâÄôs budget by more than $100 million a year.
If the governorâÄôs bill were to be adopted and passed, tuition increases for undergraduates at the University of Minnesota would be 1.5 to 2 percent next year. Anything beyond [those cuts] will have upward pressure on tuition prices.
Top administrators have presented to the Legislature in this year and years past with a similar message about the impact of the cuts and the importance of the University to the state. Why do you think that message hasnâÄôt been successful and the Legislature is still handing down these cuts?
ItâÄôs very difficult if you take a no-tax pledge and then you take a pledge that resists the reform of your current tax system. You paint yourself into a corner, and that is basically whatâÄôs happened.
The perfect storm is obviously attributable to a downturn in the economy, but itâÄôs also related to the failure of our state to step up and think more creatively about tax structure in the 21st century. And also, I think the willingness to at least consider revenues as a part of the solution âĦ
We have said weâÄôre going to take tough medicine here, we know we have to do it. The real issue to me is how tough that medicine should be in relationship to the critical importance of higher education to the long-term future of our state. IâÄôm asking for a more moderate view than what I see in these two bills.
[Ed. Note: The Minnesota House and Senate on Tuesday passed two different versions of a higher education bill that would reduce the University to 1998 funding levels.]
Is there anything we can do with our approach to be more persuasive?
I think we need to continue to talk about the value of the University to our state. We came out recently with an economic return study that I think is very strong in pointing out that the University of Minnesota is probably the stateâÄôs No. 1 investment âĦ
I think we just have to keep pounding away that this is really important âĦ [but] itâÄôs not an easy message to get across when the economy is hurting and our needs are really great.
At the February Board of Regents meeting, charging a fee on students in different colleges to help balance out the cost of education was discussed. Is that option still being considered?
It will not be a part of the budget that I submit to the Board of Regents this spring. But it may be an issue that will be studied in the next few years.
As provost, I led the charge to take 19 different tuition structures at the undergraduate level and combine them into single framework. All other things being equal, I favor that strategy.
I donâÄôt think oneâÄôs academic access to a career at the undergraduate level should be determined by your wealth or your economic status. I think it should be driven by your curiosity.
How far did discussions on the topic go?
In particular colleges, for example the Carlson School of Management and a few other colleges, people studied the issues and continue to do so. WeâÄôre not saying no on any permanent basis âÄî that will be determined by the next administration.
I didnâÄôt feel we were in a good enough position right now with the prospect of a sharply declining budget to add a new level of complexity to our tuition structure before we had the opportunity to discuss it more fully.
University professors Francois Sainfort and Julie Jacko were recently indicted on multiple felony counts of fraud in Georgia. The University conducted its own investigation and disciplined them in December.
Why did the University choose to continue employing these professors, and how might the prosecution affect that?
I donâÄôt know the answer to this question yet.
The University did a thorough investigation of all the available information.
The state of Georgia did not release information that we asked for that would have allowed us to study these issues more deeply, and we didnâÄôt have any control over that.
I donâÄôt know how this will come out or how it will be resolved. I can assure you that if there is additional information brought to light we did not know about that we think has bearing on their employment, we will take that into consideration and take the appropriate action.
The College of Liberal Arts recently eliminated two majors and a minor. What do you think the University loses when it reduces its offerings? Is it feasible to continue offering all the majors we currently do, or this something weâÄôll be seeing more of in the coming years?
I think we should continue to redefine our academic programs.
The academic programs of higher education 150 years ago didnâÄôt look anything like they do today, and I would expect weâÄôd have the same commitment that our predecessors had to continue to redefine the academic mission of the University of Minnesota in light of the realities of the 21st century.
I expect there will be further consolidations of academic programs âĦ [but] not all change is bad. Some change is painful, but a good many of these circumstances give us an opportunity to reshape our academic priorities and our programs to better serve the University.
The Blue Ribbon reports were recently released by the colleges and contained major initiatives and restructuring. Do you think these initiatives can be accomplished in enough time to avert damage done by declining funding?
I donâÄôt think thatâÄôs the best way to look at the Blue Ribbon process. The Blue Ribbon process was designed to ask every unit of the University to have a thoughtful conversation about the future of their unit or their college.
They were asked to take into consideration the changing and predictable trends we see in higher education. Some of them are demographic, some are financial and some have to do with the very nature of scholarship and how itâÄôs changing
today âĦ
ItâÄôs obviously prompted in part by the urgency facing us with the decline in our economy and the expected reduction of the UniversityâÄôs budget. But I would hope that these Blue Ribbon reports would have some staying power and that they will encourage people to examine the future of the University of Minnesota and all of its programs.
Some of the ideas in the Blue Ribbon reports will be responsive to the current context and allow units more flexibility in addressing the financial issues in front of us, but I think others will be more of a long-term venture.
A group of students recently occupied the Social Sciences Building on the West Bank for a sit-in, protesting tuition increases and staff wages, among other things. How does this reflect on the communication between administrators and students? Can there be more done to improve the dialogue?
I just returned from a trip, so IâÄôm not fully up to speed on that. We obviously continue to work to improve communication across the entire University community, but I frankly donâÄôt think thatâÄôs the best way of expressing your views on these matters.
I would argue that people also need, in addressing these very serious issues, [to] appreciate the facts. The facts of the matter are that this University has gone to extraordinary lengths to keep higher education affordable in one of the most difficult and challenging periods.