Bruininks explains U stance on Coca-Cola

Nina Petersen-Perlman

As the school year winds down, University President Bob Bruininks sat down with the Daily to discuss policy, the legislative session and strategic positioning.

Have you been receptive to students’ concerns about the University’s partnership with Coca-Cola?

I think we are not only receptive but interested in exploring these issues more broadly.

Quite a few months ago I appointed a working committee to explore the wide range of issues in this area. They had a meeting, I believe, with senior leadership of Coke, they’re holding a public forum with students I believe either this month or early next month and they’re undertaking a pretty thorough study of these issues.

My position is that we should examine these concerns, the concerns some students are raising, in a way that befits the purposes of the University. We ought to find the facts, we ought to examine the information, and we ought to come to some reasonable judgments in the process.

If you do find during your fact-finding process that Coke has violated several human rights, will you cease partnership with them?

I think it’s premature to say what action, if any, we would take, but we do have a strong commitment as a University to social responsibility on behalf of the University of Minnesota and also in relationship to the partnerships we have with private and public sector organizations.

We have a strong statement of values in this area that we think are really important, and we’ll certainly take whatever we find into consideration as we think through the policies and actions of the University of Minnesota.

What does that fact-finding process entail?

It’s a pretty broadly based committee that is examining the issues. I think the Coca-Cola Corporation has taken some very important actions to join United Nations organizations. I don’t have the exact names of these, but one deals with the rights of workers and the other deals with issues related to the environment.

I think they are now understanding that this is a very serious concern in our university and in other colleges and university communities across the country. To me that’s a step very much in the right direction.

But I think it’s very premature to say what the University’s position will be before we do our own due diligence in investigating the facts on the ground.

Regent Frank Berman’s proposal to exempt the University’s presidential searches from the state’s open meeting law was recently voted down by the Legislature. What was your stance on that?

I didn’t take a position on it. I tend to favor openness as much as possible in government and particularly in the flow of information, but I don’t have an official position on it, and I think quite frankly it would be inappropriate for me to articulate one.

The University didn’t have an official position on the bill either.

I think the University Board of Regents felt it wasn’t an appropriate position to take as a board, and that individual members could make their own separate recommendations to the Legislature, but the Board chose not to take an official position.

How do you feel about the progress of the bonding bill in the Legislature?

I actually feel very good about our position on the bonding bill. I think we’re at the best position we’ve enjoyed for at least seven or eight years.

The last bonding bill that the Legislature passed was about $108 million, and the lowest recommendation we have now is $121 million in the House version.

I feel we’re in a very, very strong position with very strong support with the House, the governor and the Senate. I expect a reasonably positive outcome. We won’t get everything we want, obviously, but I do believe we’ll get a strong bonding bill this year.

This bonding bill asks for a lot more money than in years past. Why is that?

Well, I think partly because the state’s economy is somewhat stronger, but we’ve also put together a very creative and forceful plan with a strong emphasis on serving students, and an emphasis on advancing the University’s work in the biomedical sciences.

I think our proposal was really strong; it enjoys really strong private support and it addresses issues we think are really very important to advancing the University of Minnesota. The plan is very much aligned, very much connected, if you will, with the University’s strategic plan, the priorities for the future, and I believe the Legislature recognizes that and is very positive in its support.

Were you trying to make up for receiving less funding in previous years with this year’s request?

No, I think we put forward just an honest statement of what the University needed.

I believe one of the most exciting ideas we advanced this year is the Biomedical Sciences Facilities Authority. If funded, it would give the University and the state of Minnesota an opportunity to plan long-term investment over the next 10 years in an area that’s vitally important to the academic success of the University, and I would argue the economic success of Minnesota.

The biomedical sciences are connected to over 500 medical service companies in Minnesota. It is one of Minnesota’s most important economic sectors, and the sector that’s been growing substantially in importance.

What do you think of the U.S. bill that would make accreditation of universities across the country dependant on a standardized test that all graduating students would take?

I think it’s not a very good idea, and I hesitate to criticize any effort to improve the accountability of our systems or institutions of higher education.

I don’t think you can measure the sum output of the University of Minnesota with a single measure or a single test. We are one of the most complex institutions of higher education in the United States or in the world.

I would prefer a model in which the federal government identifies areas of performance and expectations and allows institutions like the University of Minnesota to design and be fully accountable, publicly accountable, for their results.

A one-size-fits-all model for higher education in the United States will not succeed and I estimate it will cost a great deal of money to implement, money that we might better spend on the education of our students.

Do you think the University uses eminent domain too liberally, and in what cases do you think the University should use it?

We rarely, very, very rarely use eminent domain, and we only use eminent domain when it is absolutely necessary and we have been unsuccessful in achieving what is important to the University by any other results.

We are very conservative in exercising our rights under eminent domain and do everything possible to arrive at agreements with people without recourse to those types of legal procedures.

I might also add that many of the comments made about the University’s position in this area are actually wrong. The University has never contemplated destroying Station 19, a historic building on the edge of campus, and we want to do everything possible to work with the owner of that building as our neighbor.

But do you want to use Station 19 for University purposes?

We aught to explore whether there’s some possibility to do that, but I think we have to be respectful of the rights of this owner as well. The owner has said in the paper that he believes we can work out a respectful agreement and that’s our commitment as well.

On July 1, six colleges will merge into three. What hurdles are there yet to overcome before that can happen?

Well there are still challenges ahead in bringing these cultures together in forming the new colleges. We have searches for two new deans, so we have to settle the leadership in at least two of the colleges – the College of Education and Human Development and the new College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Sciences.

The second challenge is that we need to bring the policies of these colleges into alignment. Each college may have

different ways of thinking about how to appoint people; they have different ways of evaluating faculty, for awarding tenure and different policies for reviewing and approving curriculum.

The third challenge is to integrate the organizations and administration of these six colleges into three new colleges. That may involve restructuring offices, maybe appointing some new people.

A lot of the mergers are happening in the hopes of creating new synergies and interdisciplinary research and scholarship. Can that happen when parts of the new colleges are still on different campuses?

These academic units that are coming together have a history of working together. I think we’ll continue to find new ways to build academic synergies and integrated programs.

In the longer range, I think we aught to rethink the configuration and location of some of our programs. The task force reports pointed out we could make some additional academic gains through some of these consolidations if we could solve some of the space programs and issues.

It will not be possible in the near term to bring all the academic units of a single college together, but I do think there will be some areas where we’ll be able to make some progress in bringing units into closer spatial, as well as academic, alignment.