Robert Bruininks: 'Tin cup' doesn't keep 'U' or state competitive

  • Updated: December 16, 2007 - 4:26 PM
The University of Minnesota "needs the state to be steadfast" in its financial support, if the institution is to make progress toward a top-three national ranking, President Robert Bruininks told the Star Tribune Editorial Board on Dec. 7. That's the message Bruininks will take to the 2008 Legislature, as the university pursues a $238 million state bonding request and an in-principle commitment to build four biosciences research buildings in the next decade. He'll also argue that a state budget gap should not be closed with cuts in state operating appropriations to the university. Here are excerpts from his remarks:

I believe more today than I did five years ago that the University of Minnesota is the most important institution in the entire state of Minnesota. It is absolutely the state's competitive edge in the global economy; it is better today than it was some years ago; we have the right plan and the right ideas in place to make it much better.

To get there, you need some kind of predictable state support. You can't have the feeling year after year that you are on your way to Valley Fair, and you're going to take the roller coaster ride. You have to have some kind of consistency.

You also have to be entrepreneurial and grow your own resources. We have some ideas to do that. You have to keep higher education accessible and affordable to young people, and we've been on the cutting edge of doing that. We are really working on these big macro issues.

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In a global economy, you play to your strengths and comparative advantages. There are states all around us who looked at our biomedical sciences idea [see editorial on facing page] and adopted it, and have put hundreds of millions of dollars on the table (to support it), and they do not have the life sciences/biosciences industry in their back yard the way we do.

• • •

For the first time in modern history, Minnesota's economic indicators are lagging the national ones. I think it's a real problem.

To grow jobs, you've got to invest in human capital and innovation. Over the last 40-50 years, the private sector has substantially divested itself of research and development investment. It's trying to get most of its R & D investment through partnerships with places like us, or from acquisitions of small start-ups.... Depending on acquisitions isn't a great strategy for a state. The state needs to really invest in research.

• • •

In private-public R & D, where we get money from private industries, in the Big Ten, we are slightly below average. Some of the places above us are proximate to some nice cornfields. We are in an unbelievable business culture here. What's keeping us from moving up?

We found that the state of Ohio created a $500 million, 10-year investment pool to match research partnerships with private industries at their universities. Ohio State's private-funded research more than doubled in two years, and they went from roughly our position to the top of the Big Ten. Now these businesses are saying, we can really push for R & D in areas of innovation in our industry. Then you create the synergy that generates the next best idea.

Our approach to that in Minnesota was, we passed a $2.5 million bill which required a special entity to go out and raise more money. It was the tin cup model. It didn't work.

• • •

If you want to say "no new taxes," that's fine. I don't believe in it. I think it's bad public policy to take options off the table that can be used to solve a problem.

But then at least, stick your neck out and reform the (tax) system.... We have a flawed sales tax system. I've said since 1990, we ought to put the sales tax on clothing, and then make sure the state funded more of K-12 education, rather than the local level, so you can at least maintain educational equity.

• • •

Question: The state budget is in trouble again. When that happened in 2003, your response seemed to be, "We'll take our share of the cuts." Will you do that again?

Answer: No. I'm going to be meaner than a junkyard dog if that happens again. It should not happen again. That would be a lack of leadership on the part of our state....

You can do [major spending cuts] maybe once. You can't do it over and over again, unless you want to be totally committed to mediocrity. We were once 29th in per capita income, in 1959. Why would we want to be that kind of a state again?

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