Selection of Bruininks tempered by economy

With the Board of Regents’ unanimous approval of interim University President Robert Bruininks as the University’s 15th president, the University signaled a change made out of dire economic necessity. Considering Minnesota is facing $3 billion in deficits and Governor-elect Tim Pawlenty’s no-tax pledge, massive cuts in state programs will result, and Bruininks’ selection was the only decision the Board of Regents could have made. Although the decision to select Bruininks is laudable, he is confronted by a difficult task, whether the University can improve during the current economy, or if the institution will merely not lose ground.

In Bruininks, the regents selected a candidate with 35 years of institutional experience. Bruininks’ salary of $340,000 is a bargain compared to the amount former President Mark Yudof will be earning as the chancellor of the University of Texas System, which is expected to be $600,000. Additionally, because Bruininks has been a loyal member of the University community, he will likely remain president for an extended period of time. However, other University ambitions will be sacrificed for economic prudence.

After accepting the nomination, Bruininks said, “My vision of the University of Minnesota is to be the most outstanding public research university in the nation.” Topping half a billion dollars in research last year and ranked in a University of Florida study as one of the top three public research universities in the nation for the second consecutive year, Bruininks’ vision seems wholly unambitious. A more imposing aspiration is that the University have the top engineering, law or undergraduate schools in the nation. Concentrating on developing a competitive South Asian Languages and Cultures program or improving athletes’ graduation rates would at least give the impression the University is not pulling in the reins of growth.

Whereas Yudof’s tenure was marked with massive structural initiatives and costly athletics scandals – performance-focused investments – Bruininks’ initial aspirations will be limited by economics. Yudof acted as a cheerleader raising more than $1 billion in investments to the University. It remains to be seen whether Bruininks can muster the energy and stamina to continue a struggle for funds from the state without resulting in burdening students with double-digit tuition increases.

Bruininks’ appointment comes after the lowest operating budget request in 10 years, which consists of a request of $96 million in new state funding along with a 50-50 partnership for increased needs. In his State of the University Address, he announced a desire for $5 million in savings through service and productivity initiatives. Tuition rates are expected to increase 4.5 percent in each of the next two years.

“(The proposed operating budget) will respect the state’s economic challenges and reaffirm our internal commitment to setting priorities and cost-savings,” Bruininks said at his State of the University Address. However, it is one of the University president’s duties to procure as much financial assistance as possible. Bruininks’ proposal leaves little room for compromise. When Yudof played the money game, he consistently presented offers knowing they would be pared down. It is not the president’s duty to be concerned with interests ulterior to the needs of the University but to those of the state Legislature. Bruinink’s new economic approach is a bold move. Will the state become heartless and cut an already frugal University budget, or will it “reward” the University for its cost-cutting efforts?

President Bruininks will be forced to balance on a scalpel’s edge the point at which cost cutting becomes a detriment to the University and still remains a benefit to the state’s budget, though as president the University should be his top priority. Bruininks is fortunate to have a significant amount of institutional experience, an impressive resume and a great deal of regard for the University. However, these are only some of the qualities necessary for the success of a president. What will truly test Bruininks is the degree to which he can improve the University during a time of significant budget reductions.