Bruininks details U ambitions

Nina Petersen-Perlman

A year after he unveiled his plan to propel the University to one of the top-three public research universities in the world, University President Bob Bruininks talked to the Daily about how the plan is faring.

What initially prompted the strategic positioning process?

In the last 25 years, federal and state levels of University support have declined very dramatically. Thereís been a real rise in cost of education that exceeds the rate of inflation.

More people are interested in pursuing an education because they know itís so vitally important today, much more than was the case in my youth. Itís much more consequential in determining your life outcomes.

All of these factors require that universities like ours reflect from time to time on their current circumstances and where they think they need to go to maintain leadership in the future.

To me, it was important to do to improve the University of Minnesota, to position it as a leader of higher education in the nation and around the world, but mostly itís about getting better results for all the people we serve at the University of Minnesota.

Why now?

Because I think the issues are really urgent. We had gone through a $185 million budget reduction over a two-year period. We had to eat roughly another $65 million in inflationary costs in a two-year period with no money to pay for it.

It was really important to step back and say, ìWhatís important to the Universityís future? What can we do to improve the quality and direction for the University in the future?” And I would submit that no organization in our entire world can ever succeed, ever maintain the quality of what it does, unless it does this on a regular basis.

You keep mentioning numbers and deficits. Is strategic positioning intended to save money for the University?

Absolutely. Itís intended to save money and to improve the setting of priorities.

If itís intended to save money, it sure seems like a lot of resources and a lot of peopleís valuable time is being allocated specifically for strategic positioning.

There is no organization in our society that goes through something like this without engaging people in the process.

In fact, your paper has been somewhat critical as what you perceive to be the lack of engagement, which I totally reject, to be honest with you.

If weíre going to make judgments about priorities that will affect the long-term future of the University, people have to get engaged in that process. They have to spend some time on it.

Now, I donít think we can expend this level of effort each and every year. This is a very intensive process to get strategic planning off the ground.

You mentioned that the Daily had criticized the lack of involvement, and I think what weíve run articles on is the lack of student involvement and the lack of student knowledge of whatís going on.

When we were in the early stages I admitted that was an issue.

We took very strong action to engage students in all the task forces and to make sure we had regular contact with students throughout this process.

The 11 task forces that made their initial recommendations in December had more than 150 of them, some of which called for new buildings and new staff positions. All of that is going to cost money. Where will that money come from?

We wonít do it all. These are just ideas.

How will they get prioritized?

There will be very extensive consultations with the academic community that will involve students, faculty and staff.

The Universityís Board of Regents ultimately will help determine these ideas and make the decisions in lots of different ways that have to do with the long-term priorities. Nothing gets spent unless the regents approve the budget.

Ultimately, I get to make the recommendations after I listen to all the advice I get from the task forces, the provost and other senior officers in this process.

Which recommendations do you think deserve the most support?

There are several things. First of all, some of the recommendations that deal with providing better financial support to students are ones that I feel deeply about.

Secondly, there will be some recommendations that I think will go to the heart of improving the quality of education we provide our students and the quality of support they need to pursue their education here.

I think youíll find recommendations coming out of here to improve the student support systems and to improve the educational offerings. I think those are recommendations that will get a lot of traction in this process.

It seems there are a lot of different ways to reach the goal of being one of the top-three public research universities in the world, so how do you quantify it?

There is a metrics and measurements task force that is working through all of these issues. We will probably arrive at 15 to 25 leading measures to assess the quality of impact of our education and our research and our engagement in public issues.

You have to keep score on something. And theyíre not all numbers. Some are qualitative impacts the University has on our community and our society.

How long do you think the process will take, and is there a point where it makes more sense to abandon that goal?

We debated about whether we should put a number in the goal.

Whether we can reach some magical No. 3 status, I canít tell you. I donít think thatís as important as saying these issues, these directions and these commitments are really important to the University of Minnesota and the Universityís future.

Thereís been positive response to strategic positioning, but thereís also been a lot of negative response.

Some negative response. If you measured it on a Richter scale I donít think it would be as much as youíve published.

Many of the loudest voices, anyway, have come from the General College. Theyíve called you a racist. Theyíve called you an elitist. How do you respond to that?

I totally reject those characterizations of me. Before many of these critics were born, I was working in the inner-city schools of Nashville and in and around Detroit to improve the quality of education and educational opportunities for people of all races. Itís been my lifelong pursuit.

It does not hold any water whatsoever in reflecting my personal values and my commitments to people from all walks of life, all races and all backgrounds.

I come from rather humble circumstances myself; probably far more humble than the majority of my critics ó as small a number as they happen to be at the moment.

Iím deeply committed to people who grow up with limited means and limited opportunities. Itís not worthy of the University of Minnesota to accept people for admission and then to fail them at high rates.

What do you mean by that?

Thirty percent of the students who enter General College graduate in six years. Fifteen percent of the students of color graduated in six years.

If I were to tell you your odds of success at the University were 15 percent in six years, I doubt that you would think of this as a really great place to come.

I am deeply committed to making sure this university is accessible and affordable to students.

But I am deeply committed to make sure that when students come here, they have access to real opportunity and access to success.

Iíll take any amount of criticism thatís thrown my way, because I know what weíre doing is right, and I know weíre committed to the values that have been a part of this Universityís tradition for 155 years.

In conclusion Ö

I didnít have to do any of this stuff. I could have just left here after five or six years, taken the University through a budget crisis, put some new ideas on the table and left and considered a success.

But I wouldnít have left the University in the kind of condition it needed to be in to really confront what I think is going to be a really challenging future in higher education.

Do I expect weíre going to stumble once in a while and make some mistakes here and there? Absolutely. But theyíll be right out there in the open where everybody can see them.

If you canít have a little argument and a little controversy at the University of Minnesota or any academic institution, where are you going to have it in our society? We should get in each otherís faces about ideas.