Hasselmo adviser has been a bridge in divisive times

by Joel Sawyer

In his three years as a top University administrator, Mario Bognanno has learned the behind-the-scenes mechanisms of power. The burly, bespectacled Iowan has been an important piston in the Hasselmo administration’s engine since 1994, when he became the president’s chief of staff. Since then, he has helped University President Nils Hasselmo formulate policy, steering the University through some of its murkiest years.
From the heated tenure debate to the Fairview-University Hospital merger and the ALG fiasco, Bognanno has been a key adviser and confidant to Hasselmo and a friend to many faculty members.
“He’s been invaluable as chief of staff,” Hasselmo said. “He has a keen sense of what the real issues are and has the ability to bring people together to solve those issues.”
Bognanno’s ties to the University are long-standing. As a distinguished professor in the Carlson School of Management’s Industrial Relations Center and a University instructor since 1970, Bognanno was involved in faculty governance while also working as a professional labor dispute arbitrator.
He also served on numerous task forces and committees and often served as a spokesman for faculty members on salary and grievance issues.
“I was not timid in my communications with administrators and regents,” Bognanno said of his days as a faculty leader.
Meanwhile, Bognanno also did consulting work for the World Bank, the U.S. Department of Labor, the Republic of Korea’s Ministry of Labor and Minnesota’s Bureau of Mediation Services.
Bognanno’s colleagues at the University noticed his talents. Hasselmo had known Bognanno for years and worked with him extensively when Bognanno served as chairman of the University Senate’s Faculty Consultative Committee in 1992-93. At Hasselmo’s request, Bognanno put his academic career on hold to become his top assistant.
“Mario is an extremely dedicated person,” Hasselmo said. “What strikes you about him is the intensity with which he throws himself into an issue.”
That intensity characterized Bognanno’s early days as Hasselmo’s chief aide. Bognanno said he worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, helping to implement Hasselmo’s agenda and serving as one of the president’s staunchest supporters during times of trouble.
When Jean Keffeler, chairwoman of the Board of Regents, and Gov. Arne Carlson were rumored to be seeking Hasselmo’s early retirement in 1995, Bognanno stood by the besieged president. “I told (Hasselmo) that he was an asset we could not afford to lose,” Bognanno said.
Had Hasselmo retired, Bognanno said he doubts many of the University’s achievements in the last two years would have happened.
“Had Nils resigned two years ago, I’m confident the tenure code would’ve been one that was outside of the mainstream, one that this faculty could not possibly have (lived with),” Bognanno said. “Faculty governance as we know it would surely have been destroyed.”
He has also defended Hasselmo for his tough stances on such issues as the dismissal of Dr. John Najarian. “None of us are above the law,” Bognanno said, referring to the disciplining of Najarian for violating University policies.
For Hasselmo, Bognanno’s loyalty and hard work have been essential. “I have enjoyed working with Mario because in the midst of working on difficult issues, he can joke and laugh,” Hasselmo said. “That personal relationship has been very good to deal with the stress and strain of office.”
Bognanno takes little credit for any of Hasselmo’s successes, preferring to give the spotlight to the president. “When you’re chief of staff, the president’s successes are your successes,” he said.
But Bognanno’s strong relationships with faculty members might have helped Hasselmo receive support from University professors.
“As chief of staff, I’ve always felt the faculty have had a strong spokesperson in Bognanno,” said Ellen Berscheid, a regents professor of psychology who has known Bognanno for more than two decades.
“What’s different about him is that he’s a distinguished faculty member and a superb scholar, not just an administrator,” she added.
Because of his experience as a faculty leader, Bognanno has been an intermediary between faculty members, the administration and the Board of Regents since he became chief of staff.
“He’s done a heroic job,” said V. Rama Murthy, professor of geology and geophysics. During extremely difficult times, Bognanno “acted as the one contact point for all sides,” especially during the tenure debate and this year’s failed faculty union drive, Murthy said.
“He’s been very good at pulling people together and keeping our eyes focused on what we’re supposed to be focusing on,” said W. Phillips Shively, provost for arts, sciences and engineering.
Despite past conflicts about issues such as the closing of General College and U2000, current regents seem to work well with him, even if they disagree on occasion.
“With Mario being in the business he’s been in, he has to be a very good strategist,” said the current chairman of the Board of Regents, Tom Reagan. “He can take a look at a situation and give you a number of ways to come to a solution.”
While Bognanno has searched for solutions to University problems for more than a quarter century, he has faced his own private struggles.
When he was an undergraduate at Georgetown University in the early 1960s, Bognanno discovered he had a rare eye disease called keratoconus. Doctors told Bognanno that the disease, which causes the cellular breakdown of the cornea, would blind him in 2-3 years.
Bognanno held onto his vision by wearing thick glasses and using early prescription contact lenses to keep pressure on his disintegrating corneas.
While studying for his Ph.D. in economics at the University of Iowa in the late ’60s, Bognanno received cornea transplants to rescue his failing eyesight.
The transplanted corneas served Bognanno well until recently. He had a second cornea transplanted onto his left eye in 1995 and in March had the same procedure performed on his right eye.
Despite his continued health problems, Bognanno has remained productive, writing extensively about labor economics and labor relations. He also served as a visiting professor at the Kyung Hee University in South Korea.
The Bognanno family has strong ties with this Asian nation. While serving as a consultant for the Korea Development Institute in 1979-80, Bognanno and his wife Peggy adopted their daughter, Mary, from a Seoul orphanage.
Bognanno, who has four other children, still visits Korea often to consult with colleagues, perform work for the institute and forge ties with Asian University alumni. He estimates that he’s been to Korea more than 60 times and says that while he speaks only “taxi Korean,” he knows Seoul better than Minneapolis.
Bognanno will leave his post Aug. 1, one month after Hasselmo’s successor, President-designate Mark Yudof, takes office.
And that suits his friends just fine. “What he’s been through the last couple of years in that job, we can’t possibly imagine,” Berscheid said.
“We were very afraid that he’d have a heart attack or have something happen,” she added. “If it’s done right, it’s a killer job.”
Bognanno and his wife sold their Minneapolis home last week and will move to the Southwest this fall where he will take a one-year faculty position at the University of Arizona. “I’m getting my research agenda booted up and want to start teaching again,” he said.
Bognanno’s time in Arizona will be short-lived. He said he plans to return to teach at the University in fall 1998.
“I love the University,” Bognanno said. “I have a passion for the University.”