Bruininks talks budget, Grad School, Med School ethics

Bruininks said U has tentative plans to fund new scholarships.

On Monday, the Daily sat down with University President Bob Bruininks in his office to talk about current issues facing the University. The UniversityâÄôs budget is being debated in the Legislature. Gov. Tim Pawlenty has recommended $151 million be cut from the University for the next biennium, due to the stareâÄôs $4.8 billion deficit.

Listen to President Bob Bruininks answer the questions.

Current budget projections have tuition increasing by 7.5 percent and all departments having to cut 5 percent to 8 percent of their budgets. The recent dissolution of the Graduate School as an independent entity, a move which has received criticism from students and faculty both for its suddenness and uncertain future, was also discussed The president then gave the strongest administrative endorsement yet for the Medical School ethics committeeâÄôs proposals on the disclosure of conflicts of interest. The Medical School dean commissioned a task force to address the school’s conflict of interest shortcomings, which earned a âÄòDâÄô from a national group’s assessment last summer. Bruininks also told the Daily how he spent his own personal holiday and about the UniversityâÄôs tentative plans to fund new scholarships for low and middle-income students despite large budget cuts.

What can the University realistically hope for as the Legislature works with the governorâÄôs budget proposal?

Well, weâÄôre in a very difficult period now because everyone, including the governor, is waiting for the late February budget forecast. The governor, last week, projected a state deficit as high as $7 billion. That is one of the big issues that people will face, in at least the near term, in determining how to cope with the decline in our economy and the growing budget deficit at the state level. A second thing that is happening that is really important is the federal stimulus bill and its potential impact on the state, and we should know with more certainty by the end of February the extent to which the federal stimulus bill can be used to help offset the stateâÄôs budget challenge and hopefully provide some relief to the University of Minnesota. My goal and the goal of the University community is to make the University of Minnesota a major priority in the state budget discussions and in the future of our state, and ask lawmakers and the governor to lower the impact of the projected budget reduction on the University and the University community.

How will the late February projection have an impact on the planning thatâÄôs already going on to deal with the budget?

We are already anticipating that the February forecast will be more challenging, so weâÄôre asking people to model the budget recommended by the governor, which would call for very deep cuts. These cuts would be approximately $200 million over the next two years âÄî$151 million in terms of the state budget reduction, but we have an additional $50 million in internal expenses that we have to meet, even assuming no increase whatsoever in the compensation for the faculty and staff of the University of Minnesota. So, weâÄôre modeling some very difficult scenarios here and trying to determine the most creative way to cope with this challenge. I hope this: the federal money that was passed through the Congress and [was signed by President Obama on Tuesday] should give some immediate relief to the states, including some direct relief to institutions of higher education.

How was the decision made to dissolve the Grad School as an independent entity?

ThereâÄôs been a little confusion here. The one thing we have to remember is that we are not discontinuing our commitment to graduate and professional study at the University of Minnesota. The main change here is to decentralize the direct authority and responsibility for masterâÄôs degree programs and professional degrees. Those degrees are decentralized to colleges. ThatâÄôs the major issue here, and what the University is trying to accomplish is the strengthening of graduate education. WeâÄôre not trying to erode the strength of graduate education, weâÄôre trying to streamline administrative processes and reduce administrative costs so that we can put more of the resources of the University of Minnesota into interdisciplinary education and direct support to students. The other thing I would say is I fully respect people who feel we should have consulted and talked about this issue much more before rolling it out as a decision, but I think people need to recognize that the decision is only one to change the basic structure. It is now the task of the University community to come together and determine how this will be implemented. I also want to say to our employees that weâÄôre going to do everything possible to make sure people land on their feet.

Can you put a dollar amount on the savings you think will be âĦ

I think itâÄôs a little too early to estimate the precise dollar amount, but I believe, and I think our initial analyses suggest, that it will be in excess of a million dollars. And quite frankly, without those cost savings, we would have little alternative but to take cuts across the board in graduate and professional study, and I find that to be an intolerable option because the cuts would fall more heavily on students, since thatâÄôs the main source of support.

What kind of a result would you like to see come out of the Medical School ethics committee thatâÄôs working right now?

What will happen now is this report will go to the administration and to a team of people that is really concerned with examining issues of conflict of interest. But in my initial assessment, I think this is a relatively strong statement and strong report, but weâÄôre going to do everything possible to make sure that the UniversityâÄôs policies and standards are as strong as possible in this area. We want to be known for the quality of our integrity and our commitment to the highest ethical standards and that was the spirit that led to the formation of this committee. So, I think this is still a work in progress and weâÄôre going to do everything possible to make sure that the University, at the end of this process, has a set of policies and standards that we can be deeply proud of.

How did you celebrate Bob Bruininks Day?

With about 400 of my very closest friends âĦ I just hoped, when I got up in the morning that nothing would go wrong. But it was very flattering to have the governor name a day in my honor, largely because the Minneapolis and St. Paul Business Journal awarded me the honor of executive of the year, which is a very rare thing. I appreciated the gesture and I must tell you I share it broadly with all the leaders of the University of Minnesota. I think weâÄôve done some things that we can be really proud of in the last several years and IâÄôm really pleased that the community notices it.

IâÄôve heard a small amount of concern about that award, and youâÄôre being seen more as an executive than as an educator.

Well thatâÄôs kind of interesting to me because in the same week I was given another recognition and this recognition was given to me by the Minnesota Association for Secondary Principals and this was called âÄúEducator of the Year Award,âÄù for my commitment and service to improving pre-school through 12th grade education in the state of Minnesota.

I saw that some of the new scholarship money that was in the UniversityâÄôs [original] budget proposal remained in [the preliminary projections], even after the cuts.

WeâÄôre doing a number of things. First of all, weâÄôre really continuing to work hard to raise private scholarship support, and I think youâÄôd be hard pressed to find any university in the country that has done as well as we have in the last five years in doubling the number of scholarship awards for undergraduate students and doubling the size of each award, so thatâÄôs a really proud achievement, I think, for the University community. The second thing that weâÄôre going to continue to do is to provide a free tuition scholarship for students who are eligible under the Pell grant program. These are students from low-income families where the average family income is roughly $27,000 to $28,000 a year. And weâÄôre now working to see if we can expand financial support for middle-income families from Minnesota âÄî that is students from middle-income families. What I deeply regret is that weâÄôre in the middle of these difficult challenges roughly four years after we went through a similar challenge of reducing the state budget commitment to the University by $200 million. I think the reductions will be so severe that I think weâÄôre going to face the freezing of wages and salaries subject to the normal requirements we have to negotiate with our employee groups, but I frankly, at this time, donâÄôt see much of an alternative. It will require some sacrifice by all of us at the University community to get through this difficult challenge, and I deeply regret that we have to do it at this time, so quickly on the heels of the last financial crisis caused by a relatively recent recession.