Robert Bruininks: True to U

  • Article by: JEFF SHELMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 16, 2008 - 11:42 PM

The University of Minnesota president has battled to make his vision a reality on campus.

Along with their laptops and iPods, the 5,200 members of the University of Minnesota's next freshman class will descend on Dinkytown this month bringing more awards and higher test scores of any class in the U's history.

They'll also arrive on campus with the distinction of being picked from an admissions pool that had a record number of rejected applicants.

The winners and losers can point the finger at U of M President Robert Bruininks. "High school students used to say that they didn't have to worry too much about their academic preparation because they'd say, 'I can always get into the U,'" Bruininks said. "They don't say that anymore."

Six years into his tenure, selectivity is only one sign of how Bruininks is leaving his mark on the institution.

This year, the Legislature answered his call to put nearly $300 million into a long-coveted bioscience research facility. A football stadium is rising on the Minneapolis campus. A university-developed city is being considered for 5,000 acres in Dakota County. And the school has the audacious goal of becoming one of the "top three public research institutions in the world."

Yet big challenges are looming for Bruininks and the U as start another academic year.

In-state tuition and fees have surpassed $10,000 for the first time, and the share of the U's funding from the Legislature is shrinking. Meanwhile, the cost of raising the school's profile and recruiting top-notch faculty members keeps increasing.

But Bruininks, who has worked his way up the ranks at the U over the past 40 years, has made tough choices before. In 2005, the university regents approved his plan to shut down the U's General College, an entry point for underprepared students for more than 70 years. Bruininks also would not back down when clerical workers walked off the job a year ago, and the strike fell apart.

"He does care passionately about this university," said Gary Balas, a U faculty leader who was a vocal opponent of the new Gophers stadium. "I think that shows when he goes out and talks to constituents, the Legislature, the faculty.''

Balas added that even though he gets angry with Bruininks, "You can't deny his commitment and his vision for the university."

Some on campus are wondering whether Bruininks, 66, will retire before his contract expires in 2011, a possibility that he does not rule out. He's already been around, as he likes to say, for roughly a quarter of the U's history.

"It's a journey that could have gone wrong," Bruininks said. "You could have put ideas out there, faced so much headwind and resistance and had people sort of give up."

But that's not his way.

Heart of a competitor

Bruininks, with stylish glasses, a self-deprecating sense of humor and a Mickey Mouse watch, is very much a regular guy. He is a grandfather. He has a cabin in northern Minnesota. He likes to fish.

Shortly after playing trumpet as the Minnesota Pops Orchestra belted out the "Minnesota Rouser" on the school's Northrop Mall last month, the U president was approached by a university employee. Sticking out his hand, he said simply, "Hi. I'm Bob Bruininks."

But underneath the maroon sport coat is the heart of a tenacious competitor.

"He'll fight -- he won't cut deals and walk away," said Mary Jo Kane, a professor of kinesiology and a Bruininks confidante. "He'll be like a dog on a bone; he'll just keep working it and working it."

The child of parents who didn't graduate from high school, Bruininks grew up near Grand Rapids, Mich. He arrived on the Twin Cities campus in 1968 and has never left. Bruininks started out as an assistant professor of educational psychology. Then he worked his way up to dean of the College of Education and Human Development. In 1997, university President Mark Yudof chose Bruininks to be his provost and right-hand man.

"I put out a lot of feelers and tried to find out who was the most effective dean on campus, someone who can make hard decisions and retain the confidence of the faculty and alumni," said Yudof, now chancellor of the University of California system. Bruininks "not only knew where the bodies were buried, he helped bury a few."

"I tackled some issues, but there were some sacred cows I didn't want to go after," Yudof added. "He's tackled a whole lot of them."

After spending much of his first two years on the job dealing with a $185 million cut from the Legislature -- a task that included paring the school's Extension Service from 87 county offices to 18 regional centers -- Bruininks got to work on reworking the U's structure.

In 2005, the regents approved Bruininks' "strategic positioning" plan. It trimmed the number of colleges from 18 to 15 and created the "top three" goal -- while adding writing requirements for undergraduates and strengthening honors programs.

Bruininks has since had success at the Legislature. The state is funding a campus building boom, with the TCF Bank Stadium opening next fall and four new or refurbished bioscience research buildings by 2013.

Bruininks has also played a major role in fundraising. The Founders scholarships, launched during his presidency, fully cover tuition and fees for about 4,700 students this year on all University of Minnesota campuses. The program has helped the U recruit minority students; it will cost about $24 million this year.

Last week, the University of Minnesota Foundation announced that it had raised $289 million for the most recent fiscal year, an increase of 15 percent over the record $251 million raised last year. In fundraising for the football stadium, Bruininks has asked corporations and big donors both for a stadium gift and an academic gift at the same time.

Cash isn't the only thing pouring in. So are admission applications.

High school students and their parents know it's getting more difficult to be accepted to the U's Twin Cities campus. Nationwide, colleges are seeing a rise in applicants because of a population boom of teenagers and the fact that students are applying to more schools -- two trends that inevitably make campuses appear more selective. But the change at Minnesota is dramatic.

In a five-year span, applications jumped from fewer than 15,000 to more than 26,000. In 2003, the U accepted 77.4 percent of applicants. It accepted only 57.8 percent last fall.

Some of that can be attributed to the school's increased focus on undergraduate education through more honors offerings, more scholarship offerings and continued attempts to make the school feel more collegiate and less commuter-oriented.

Financing the future

But not everything has been going smoothly for Bruininks. In 2003, 60 years after the last strike at the U, some campus workers took to picket lines seeking better wages. They did it again last year, and Bruininks' resistance to their dollar-a-day demands prompted complaints from legislators.

This spring, the university angered legislators again when it took a public stand against routing the Central Corridor light-rail line through the heart of campus, then finally backed down when its opposition threatened to derail the popular transit proposal.

"I was more stubborn and argumentative than I'm normally inclined to be," Bruininks said. "But the stakes were very high for the university."

On the day of the final vote, Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, accused the university of arrogance. "When I used that word publicly, that so resonated with people," she said. "To criticize your university is a pretty harsh thing to do. ...

"Some of us were a little concerned with the amount of money the university spent fighting the Central Corridor route. That's the type of thing that if you're a legislator and you're concerned about high tuition, it obviously catches your attention."

To realize his vision, Bruininks will need significant help from those legislators.

"I would put financing the future of the university as one of the two or three biggest challenges we face," he said. "It isn't going to go away."

Tuition and fees have risen nearly $3,000 since 2003, and there are questions about how the school's ambitions will be financed. The "top three" priority, in particular, has come under questioning from some faculty members about whether it's even possible.

University lab medicine and pathology Prof. William Gleason, whose blog takes frequent aim at the university administration, contends that university's top priority needs to be making education affordable for the state's residents.

Gleason referred to data from Kiplinger's Personal Finance that found U of M student borrowers leaving school with an average of nearly $25,000 in debt, the largest of any public Big Ten school.

"We'd be extremely fortunate to be one of the best schools in the Big Ten," Gleason said at a recent public forum on the U of M's budget. "Continuing on with this Orwellian 'third best public research university in the world' business, in light of reality, is an embarrassment and only serves to make us look naive and foolish."

With the state forecasting lean economic times, university officials are not optimistic for a significant funding increase in the next few years. State funding makes up a smaller percentage of the U's budget than it did previously, but taxpayers still provide about 40 percent of the university's $3 billion budget.

A cut or even a smaller increase would likely force difficult decisions -- from raising tuition to laying off staff or postponing hiring faculty. University leaders say the recruitment of star faculty members is an expensive but essential way of bolstering rankings, bringing in research grants and attracting top students.

"We know how hard it is to compete against the other top universities," Balas said. "We know it's a very challenging economic time for the state and the university. It's hard to do everything we need to do to be 'top three.' I think that's where the frustration ends up coming out."

A to-do list

It was a little more than a year ago when the Board of Regents broached the subject of how they are going to go about finding Bruininks' replacement.

In December 2006, he signed a three-year contract extension that runs through the end of the 2010-11 school year. Bruininks, who will be paid $455,000 this school year, said it's possible that he will leave the position before his contract is up, but won't stay any longer.

"If I do serve that full three or even two of that three, I'll be the second-longest-serving president in the last 35, 40 years at the University of Minnesota," he said.

Until then, however, Bruininks has unchecked items on his to-do list.

"I really want to see better graduation rates," he said. "We want to implement the biomedical science program, to continue the private fundraising for the stadium."

Whenever Bruininks completes his tenure as president, he will have done something many thought impossible at the University of Minnesota.

"One of his legacies is that the university did change and can change," Regent David Metzen said. "A lot of people didn't think the university could ever change."

Jeff Shelman • 612-673-7478

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