Bruininks takes the reigns as U prepares tight budget

S By Paul Sand and Brad Unangst

since his appointment as interim president in June, Robert Bruininks said he never second-guessed handing over the reigns of the University to a new president sometime in 2003.

But then he received an unexpected phone call.

Just as he sat down in a south Minneapolis barber shop, a representative for the University Board of Regents called Bruininks, 60, recommending he become the institution’s 15th president.

The board’s decision followed a whirlwind week that began with the regents calling an emergency meeting to declare the board would break the state’s open meeting law and data practices act to conduct secret interviews of presidential candidates. The next day, voters returned control of the state’s government back to the Republicans in midterm elections.

One day later, the board – dissatisfied with the candidates it had interviewed – pursued Bruininks, even though he said he would not be a candidate. However, he told the board if they didn’t find anyone else, they could call on him.

“I think they knew that Ö they could draft me,” Bruininks said.

As interim president, Bruininks has been preparing for the tough times that lay ahead for the University: trying to squeeze $157 million out of a state Legislature looking to balance a $3 billion deficit. Now as president, he will have to see this task through.

“This university has been around for 150 years, and every year it has figured out a way to grow its resources,” Bruininks said. “We’re going to grow the University of Minnesota even if the resources are a little tight.”

The University will supplement their legislative request with $46.2 million from tuition increases and $50 million in internal allocations.

Bruininks, aware of the difficulties in shifting University money already earmarked for other uses, said he plans to have “very solid” ideas for determining where the money will come from by the beginning of next year.

“We just don’t know all the answers yet,” he said, adding that administrative costs are a potential source of reductions.

He cited the University’s creation of an online student financial aid system as an example of cost cutting. He said the new system shortened the time it takes for a student to get questions answered, while saving $250,000 in administrative costs and reducing the need for 750,000 pieces of paper.

“I think we need to find dozens of examples like that,” he said.

Besides paring down administrative expenditures, Bruininks said the University plans to use those reallocated funds to maintain the strength of its premier academic departments, including medical research and biological sciences.

Also high on Bruininks’ list of priorities is increasing faculty compensation and improving student experience, as well as maintaining the University’s computer and information systems, he said.

“It’s not just one thing – it’s a pattern of things that really produces much better results,” he said. “Better learning, better teaching, better retention and graduation rates.”

For all of Bruininks’ optimism, he’s aware of the possible pitfalls. If the state doesn’t approve the University’s request, he’ll have to make big changes. He said increasing tuition past the proposed 4.5 percent rate, cutting faculty and staff and merging departments are possible ways of meeting the University’s $50 million reallocation goal.

“Now if things get more difficult, we will have to adjust accordingly, and we simply don’t have a choice,” Bruininks said. “The University must balance its budget every year, but we will have to look at all the tools available.”

Some money is totally off-limits, he said, like the funding used to pay down the school’s debt.

But if the Legislature accepts a $61 million request to fund six construction projects initially vetoed by Gov. Jesse Ventura last spring, the University will fall further into debt.

This proposal includes funding for the Translational Research Facility – a $37 million building where scientific research will be translated into practical use – which tops the University’s list.

Bruininks said he believes the building will return far more than its initial investment – not only for the University, but also for the state.

He said some of the projects to benefit from the request will attract private donors, including $13 million for the research facility.

Bruininks said there is support from the state and University community, as evidence by the $1.3 billion raised in a recent capital campaign.

But with Republican Gov.-elect Tim Pawlenty vowing to balance the state’s budget without raising taxes, finding extra money for the University might prove to be a challenge.

While Bruininks said it is too early to make a decision on Pawlenty’s plans for higher education, he remains upbeat about upcoming state appropriations. Pawlenty is a University alumnus, and Bruininks is counting on the governor-elect’s relationship with his alma mater to strengthen the bank line between the state and school.

“(Pawlenty) starts with a keen appreciation for what the University’s all about,” Bruininks said. “I think he starts with a strong commitment to the long-term future of the University of Minnesota.”

For now, Bruininks will concentrate on guiding the University through the rest of the potentially difficult tasks ahead, including the impact of a lawsuit filed by media organizations, including The Minnesota Daily, against the University for allegedly violating state law.

“It’s not going to affect the day-to-day work of the University, and we’ll just have to wait and see what the courts do with the lawsuit,” he said.