Bruininks presents plan to solve economic issues

His report identified a broad range of trends including declining state funding.

Conor Shine

As the University of Minnesota confronts declining state funding and shifting demographics, President Bob Bruininks  presented a 10-point plan to the Board of Regents on how to begin addressing the issues last week.
BruininksâÄô report, âÄúThe University in New Economic Times,âÄù identified a broad range of trends that will shape and affect the University in the future and served as a starting point for discussion among the regents.
Financial pressures dominated the conversation. Over the past 30 years, state support for the University has remained flat when adjusted for inflation, Bruininks said, and rising health care and entitlement costs will take up more of the state budget, disproportionately affecting colleges.
To address these challenges, the University needs to demonstrate its unique role and impact in the state, Bruininks said, which led him to commission a study due out in February on the UniversityâÄôs effect on the state economy.
The University will need steady support from the state going forward, Bruininks said, but private support and increased tuition will also play a role in solving the UniversityâÄôs economic challenges.
Fundraising will have to be more targeted and thematic and tuition revenue can be increased through modest rate hikes and increasing student enrollment through weekend, evening, summer and online classes, he said.
Bruininks also mentioned the need to control costs through consolidating departments and to use technology to increase access to the University and collaborate with other institutions.
Regent Richard Beeson  warned about only focusing on cuts and said continued investment in areas of strength is needed to keep the University healthy and successful.
Increased competition for students also poses a challenge for the University as the number of college-ready high school graduates decreases.
BruininksâÄô plan calls for a more integrated approach involving partnerships with schools to prepare students for college and make the transition more seamless.
Regent John Frobenius  was concerned that too much focus was being placed on planning and wondered what was being done now to deal with the problems facing the University.
âÄúIt strikes me that weâÄôre still sort of laying out principles to guide us through the longer term issues,âÄù he said, âÄúbut weâÄôre making less progress on the dealing of specifics.âÄù
Bruininks said the University has already begun looking for ways to cut costs through the restructuring of colleges and academic programs, but his presentation was meant to serve as a framework for future conversations on more specific issues.
âÄúI think itâÄôs a healthy conversation; itâÄôs obviously one thatâÄôs surrounded by some anxiety and a good deal of uncertainty,âÄù he said, noting that similar discussions are taking place at universities around the country.
Although he acknowledged long-term planning is a complicated task, communication studies professor Gil Rodman said University officials showed an âÄúawkward sense of prioritiesâÄù and should focus on keeping costs down for students and protecting instructional budgets.
The administrationâÄôs rhetoric gives a sense that âÄúweâÄôre not good enough, weâÄôre not where we need to be,âÄù said Rodman, a member of the Faculty for the Renewal of Public Education, a group focused on University governance and accountability.
Instead, the University should focus more on improving the strengths that make it unique and less on being the best in all areas, he said.
âÄúCosts keep going up for graduate and undergraduate students,âÄù he said. âÄúWhat theyâÄôre getting for those fees doesnâÄôt seem to have anything to do with directly improving the quality of education.âÄù