In the interim: Bruininks reflects on upcoming transition, ongoing issues

Brad Unangst

It’s been two months since the Board of Regents announced Robert Bruininks would take over as the University’s interim president when Mark Yudof left for the University of Texas System.

When making the appointment, board members stopped short of saying Bruininks was the only person who could replace Mark Yudof. But they did say Bruininks was an easy choice, given his commitment to the University.

Bruininks has been a fixture on the Twin Cities campus for more than 30 years as a professor, dean and administrator. Over the last five years as provost, he has been responsible for implementing Yudof’s academic vision for the University.

On August 1, Bruininks will officially assume the duties of interim president. The Minnesota Daily recently sat down with him to get his perspective on the new position.

Q: Did President Yudof offer you any advice about taking the position of interim president?

Bruininks: I knew a lot about the position because I really worked closely with him. Ö You’ve got to have steady, persistent commitment to improving the quality and excellence of everything you do. I think that’s the primary advice he’s given to me. And to take care of myself and the transition here.

Q: What kinds of challenges will the University be facing in the upcoming year?

Bruininks: I think we have to maintain our commitment to the core academic values and directions we’ve set in the last five years and beyond that. We have to make a quality experience for our students a top priority. Ö We cannot afford to maintain graduation rates where they are. Ö We also have the priority to address the serious financial issues that face higher education. Ö We need to make a very strong and assertive case for increased public support for the University.

Q: How do you make that case?

Bruininks: I think you can make the case with logic and argument and fact. But it has to be made not to just a few elites, but it has to be made to the citizenry of the state. Ö I think people are willing to make the investment, but have to be reminded why it is important.

Q: Do you share President Yudof’s feeling that the decreasing level of investment in the University is a long-term trend?

Bruininks: I share the belief that this is a long-term trend. If you look at the state of Minnesota since 1980, it has regularly committed less and less of the state budget to higher education. So in real terms, the state of Minnesota is spending 25 percent less of its budget on higher education than it did back in fiscal year 1980. Ö It is a trend that I believe can be at least somewhat arrested and perhaps reversed.

Q: Do you have a different approach than Yudof to continuing the vision?

Bruininks: No, I don’t think so. Ö I will be very interested in looking for those strategic opportunities that represent sort of the promising ideas that are over the horizon. I will try to anticipate those as much as possible; I don’t think it’s different in any way.

Q: Are there any inherent challenges in being an interim president?

Bruininks: My feeling is that “interim” doesn’t really matter. What matters is whether you have the confidence of your own community. Ö I don’t care if you’re an interim or permanent or whatever, if the quality of your ideas is not high, you don’t have anything. You can’t make any progress. Ö If people see the ideas as sound, they’re going to support them. And that’s been the story the last five years. I think that’ll be the story as we go forward. Ö And the third thing I would say is I don’t have a temperament to be an interim anything.

Q: What role does athletics play at the University?

Bruininks: I think it is an important part of our culture and our mission to provide intercollegiate athletic experience for our students. It’s also very important we provide strong intramural and other campus-based experiences. Ö At the same time, I think intercollegiate athletics needs to find its rightful place in the academic values of the University. We are first and foremost an academic institution. We are not an institution whose sole or primary purpose is to train people for a professional sports career. Our obligation is to research, education and service to the general public. But I think it is an important part of our academic life, our tradition that needs to be valued. It needs to earn its way or its budget. It needs to live within the rules. Ö I think we need to find the right balance.

Q: Is the University achieving that balance?

Bruininks: I think there are many people, and I would join them, that are concerned that colleges and
universities are being pushed too much into what people regard as a big-time sports model without sufficient regard to the academic missions of our institutions. I think that deserves careful monitoring. I would want to go on the record and say that this university does play by the rules. Ö I am fairly comfortable with the issues of athletics. But I do think there are some issues that we need to watch. We cannot continue an arms race in athletics. We have to make sure we invest in athletics, but also be mindful and attentive to the academic responsibilities we have. I know it can be done. Ö I think it is possible to have strong athletic programs and still maintain very high academic values.

Q: Is a new football stadium the answer to the athletics department’s financial situation?

Bruininks: I don’t think there is a single answer. We’ll have to look at stadium issues very carefully. Again, building a stadium is not an academic priority. If the state of Minnesota decides we need a different kind of stadium arrangement, I think the University definitely wants to be a part of those conversations.

Q: What have been the biggest changes at the University during your time here?

Bruininks: I think a lot of things are different today. As a professor, I think I always paid attention to students and to teachers. I think there is much more attention given to the quality of teaching and the quality of learning on our campuses. Ö There’s much more attention today to being accountable for your results than I think was true back in what I consider to be the real growth era of higher education. Ö The research that we do is much more laboratory and technology intensive. So, the technology level has had a phenomenal effect on everything from teaching and learning to the management of libraries to the work that goes on in the laboratory to the work that goes on in the individual offices. Ö The collegial relationships are roughly the same. People still have to work with people. Ö There’s been a phenomenal growth in what I consider to be an interdisciplinary emphasis in higher education. So people are finding the connections across the fields much more than I think was true before.

Q: Are you a candidate for the permanent president position?

Bruininks: I said I wouldn’t. Ö I don’t plan to apply.

Q: Have you ruled it out?

Bruininks: I haven’t done that. But I don’t plan to be a candidate, and I expect they’ll be successful in finding someone to appoint in this national search. Ö I just felt, and still feel very strongly, that if you are an announced candidate in a position like this, even if you don’t intend to, you restrict the interest of other people in the position. I did not want to do that. I care too much about the University and the outcome of the search. Secondly, I didn’t want anybody looking at me all year long and saying, ‘Why in the devil is this old fool doing this?’ and is he making that decision because he’s trying to set himself up to be the permanent president of the University. I wanted to be completely independent. And I think that’s what makes you strong in the interim appointment.

Brad Unangst welcomes comments at [email protected]