Bruininks talks football, light-rail lawsuit, goals for final year as University president

One of the biggest challenges facing Bruininks before he steps down in June is the weakened economy and its impact on the University’s budget and funding.

by Conor Shine

University of Minnesota President Bob Bruininks sat down with The Minnesota Daily last week to talk about University news, Gophers football and goals for his last 10 months as president.

The University of Minnesota recently dropped its lawsuit against the Metropolitan Council and approved an agreement to allow the construction of the Central Corridor Light Rail line through campus. How do you feel about the agreement?

I feel good that we’ve resolved the issues in a way that, at least in our judgment, advances the transportation agenda of the University and the broader community but does so in a way that protects the University’s vital research mission.

The light-rail traffic without mitigations and without certain changes and agreements would have represented a real threat to at least the most technologically based research at the University of Minnesota.

I feel good that we’ve arrived at this agreement. The issues are largely behind us, and I think in the long run this will improve transportation in and around campus but do so in a way that protects the University’s research.

The Gophers have started out the season 1-2 including a loss to South Dakota. Are you concerned about the direction of the football team?

I was deeply disappointed with the loss [to South Dakota]. I think we have done some of the right things in terms of trying to rebuild our football traditions and to put us on the path, I think, to a more successful winning strategy.

We need a stronger football program here at the University of Minnesota. Our fans deserve it and our students, faculty and staff deserve [it].

I’m guardedly optimistic, but I would say to all of our fans, we have high aspirations for Gopher football, and we’re not going to be satisfied with mediocre results and a mediocre season.

Do you think Coach Tim Brewster is the right man to help the Gophers reach those high aspirations?

I think Coach Brewster has done some things that I appreciate and respect …

A lot of the building blocks are in place to build and sustain a successful program, but at this point we’re simply going to have to wait and see how well we do and how successful these strategies are at establishing a strong foundation for the future.

You’re set to step down as University president in less than 10 months; what goals do you still hope to accomplish before then?

I said to a group of faculty and leaders at the University that we could ill afford to take this year off, we have a lot of very important issues to accomplish.

One of the most important challenges continues to be the weakened economy and its impact on the budgetary resources at the University.

We happen to be in good financial shape in every area but state support. But it is deeply troubling to work our way through one of the deepest reductions in state support in our, at least, modern history and to finish that work and to look forward to maybe equally deep cuts in this next biennial budget session …

So that’s job one. To make sure we maintain quality, set priorities, reduce the cost of the University of Minnesota while protecting the University’s quality, productivity and impact.

So that to me is going to occupy a lot of time, but I will spend a fair amount of time trying to finish up some major academic and capital projects at the University of Minnesota.

Could you give some examples of those projects?

After the University has commissioned 11 studies on the future of Northrop [Auditorium], I want to make sure that the 11th study that I commissioned gets done. And that calls for remodeling, restoring Northrop as a center of academic and cultural life for the University and the state of Minnesota.

That’s going to take some additional private fundraising, so I’m working with Vice President [Steven] Rosenstone, Steve Goldstein, the director of our foundation, and others to raise the private funding necessary to complete that project.

I’m guardedly optimistic that we can get that project done and it will return enormous benefits to the University community, especially to students in advancing our educational mission.

There are some other capital project initiatives … We didn’t get the funding for the new physics building, we got some modest funding for planning, but we didn’t get the actual construction funding. That would be a priority if the opportunity is there for a larger bill.

Other than that, we would mainly focus on HEAPR [Higher Education Asset Preservation and Replacement], which is basic renewal money and that comes to the University without any obligation for matching resources.

We have a lot of buildings to fix; we have some to take down. We have a lot of work to do here at the University to make sure we maintain our infrastructure, so that’s another priority.

The University is set to present its initial state biennial budget request next month. How does not knowing who will be in the governor’s office affect budget planning?

It’s very difficult to plan in this period of high uncertainty, but we do know some things are likely to be challenges regardless of who wins the governorship or regardless of how the Legislature elections turn out.

We do know that the economy is underperforming. We do know we have a structural deficit in the state of more than $5 billion on an annualized basis, and we know that the solution to that problem will require revenues and control of costs or budget reductions.

I fully expect that no matter what the outcome we’re going to have to manage additional budget reductions from the state. My goal is to make those reductions as small as possible, in the interest of the state and the long-term future of the University.

We’re basically planning within the context of some scenarios, some assumptions, and we’re continuing a lot of the work we started two or three years ago to find ways to reduce the cost of the University of Minnesota …

Finally we’re looking at other nonstate revenues, private support, restructuring of our tuition programs and other forms of financial support that we think could sustain us through this very difficult period.

The University has spent the last year working on a university-wide conflict of interest policy. When can we expect a final draft?

My understanding is that it is our goal is to get it completed this fall.

But what I like about our draft policy is that it’s a highly principled policy, there’s real accountability.

It isn’t just focused on just one area of academic life at the University of Minnesota but extends the full reach of our academic responsibilities.

We will do this together as we’ve done everything else. We’ll consult broadly. We have consulted extensively on this policy, so at the end of the day I expect it will enjoy widespread consensus and support within the University community.

It’s very important for the University community to speak forcefully, and, I would argue, inspirationally, about the importance of being accountable for our conduct and accountable for the work we do. And resolving issues that have anything to do with conflict of interest is, in my judgment, a very important aspect of building a highly ethical culture that has been characteristic of the University.