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Before retiring last summer as president of the University of Minnesota, Robert Bruininks repeatedly steered money to a tiny leadership center within the Humphrey School of Public Affairs where he will spend the next phase of his U career.
Records obtained by the Star Tribune show that Bruininks, who will earn a $341,000 salary in his new faculty role there, directed at least an additional $355,000 in university funds to the Center for Integrative Leadership since 2009.
That total includes more than $150,000 for two staff members who will follow him to the center -- money that Bruininks put into his final budget as president. He also spent $75,000 from a presidential discretionary fund to cover expenses at the center, including salary for executive director Laura Bloomberg, a former Ph.D. student of his. Bruininks also shifted $110,000 to the center from money in an academic chair allocated to him by the Board of Regents. He earmarked the funds for work that he and others would do at the center.
Bruininks said he made some of the investments to help show the university's commitment to the program at a time when he was asking Marilyn Carlson Nelson of the Carlson Family Foundation for a major donation -- $1 million for the center over five years.
"You put it all together in a weird way and it may look like I'm feathering a nest, and that's simply not the case," Bruininks said in an interview.
The university drew criticism this week at the Legislature over Bruininks' approval of pay packages worth more than $2.3 million for nine high-ranking administrators who have stepped down in the past two years.
State Rep. Mike Benson, R-Rochester, said on Wednesday that he will ask the chair of the House higher education committee to examine the Bruininks deal in greater detail.
"It lends itself to a good-old-boy network," Benson said.
But Raymond D. Cotton, a Washington lawyer who specializes in contracts for university presidents and once represented Bruininks, said there is nothing unusual about Bruininks' returning to the faculty and taking two staff members with him. New university President Eric Kaler and the Board of Regents should embrace Bruininks' continued employment and capitalize on his fundraising contacts, Cotton said.
"I asked for resources to assist me in completing my academic work before full retirement from the University of Minnesota after 20 years of continuous senior-level executive service -- dean, executive vice president/provost and president," Bruininks said.
Office staff comes, too
In his transition to the center, Bruininks received a perk not spelled out in the employment contract that he signed with the Board of Regents in 2006.
He will bring with him a two-person research and writing team, along with his executive assistant of more than 35 years. Their four salaries of more than $500,000 exceed the center's current annual expenditures.
The 2006 contract makes no mention of Bruininks' retaining staff members, but his final university budget as president included compensation for Sharon Olson, his longtime senior administrative director, and Jim Thorp, his communications officer, to work for Bruininks in his role as professor until he retires.
Bruininks, 70, said he foresees working at the U another six years, more or less, including some years at less than full time.
He said in an e-mail that there was "the expectation" that the university would provide him with staff. Funding will come from tuition dollars and state appropriations as approved in the normal budget process for fiscal 2012, he said.
He said it's not uncommon for universities to provide administrative support to senior officers who return to academic life. Asked to cite a precedent at the U where a former president received money for staffing as a returning faculty member, Bruininks said other presidents in his 44 years there left the institution after stepping down.
He said his first investments in the center succeeded in attracting outside support for it and happened before he decided not to return to the College of Education and Human Development, where he was once dean. The earmarks from his academic chair in fiscal year 2010 were for leadership conferences and ''research synthesis'' involving himself and others at the center, including a conference scheduled for this fall.
"By any reasonable analysis, this investment produced and continues to produce an extraordinary academic and financial return for the university," Bruininks said.
The combined salaries in 2010 for Olson and Thorp were $156,000, not including health care and pension benefits. A third former staffer from the president's office, Ben Tilkens, will work with Thorp on research and writing and will be paid from the academic chair funds, Bruininks said.
A university spokesman said the chair was funded at $100,000 a year starting in fiscal 2008, an amount Cotton called "modest'' by major university standards. The chair had a balance of $145,000 in Bruininks' last year as president; he transferred it to the Humphrey School for use at the leadership center.
The brief section of Bruininks' employment contract dealing with the aftermath of his presidency says that if he chooses to return to the faculty, he is entitled to a 12-month leave, paid at 100 percent of his executive salary of $455,000. The leave is "for the purpose of assisting him on his return to the faculty."
Bruininks began the leave July 1. In a surprise announcement last week, he became interim president of the Bush Foundation -- a post that could last until he returns to the U this fall as a fully tenured professor. The foundation said it would pay the university for about six months of Bruininks' leave.
'Just kind of fell into place'
The Center for Integrative Leadership is a joint project of the Humphrey School and the Carlson School of Management, launched in 2007.
One of the center's major goals this year is to create its first degree program for students -- a graduate-level minor in leadership. So far, the center has focused on leadership training within the university and in community groups.
Bloomberg, the center's executive director, has known Bruininks for more than 30 years, once worked for him at the U's education school and earned her Ph.D. with him as a co-adviser. She said that the center wouldn't exist without his support and that he'll bring a wealth of experience in teaching and leadership besides "a substantial amount of cachet."
Jodi Sandfort, the academic co-director of the leadership center, was a special assistant to Bruininks starting in 2008, working with him and the Bush Foundation on a separate initiative. Bush Foundation grants to the center have totaled $320,000 since August 2010.
Sandfort said she encouraged Bruininks to consider making the leadership center his post-presidency home at a time when he was considering raising funds to start a separate leadership program.
"It all just kind of fell into place," she said.
Bruininks said the center aligns his interests and experience in leadership and public policy. "While it was not my original intent to resume my academic career in the Humphrey School, it is neither surprising nor inappropriate that I should conclude my career here," he said.
Staff writer Jenna Ross contributed to this report. Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213