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Bruininks spells out coming hard times at U

The metaphor couldn’t have been more apt as Robert Bruininks, president of the University of Minnesota, hobbled into room 112 at the Capitol Saturday to explain what some $190 million of cuts looming might mean to the U. Bruininks had a bum foot, and a little scooter to get around, but he was here to plead his case nonetheless.

Robert Bruininks
Robert Bruininks

Bruininks, dressed in a dark U sweater vest and khakis, seemed to be a credible witness. He pointedly did not complain, but instead laid out a rather somber view of what cuts will mean not just to the university, but to the employment and economy of the state of Minnesota.

Prior to the president’s appearance before the Legislative Commission on Planning and Fiscal Policy, state Rep. Tom Rukavina, the DFLer from Virginia who chairs the House higher education policy committee, was spouting off about the cuts and Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

“He’s gonna cut higher ed by $190 million,” Rukavina said, adding that some cuts might put federal stimulus money at stake. “That’s just absolutely insane.”

Bruininks was calmer than Rukavina, but no less sanguine.

(Full disclosure: I work semester-to-semester as an adjunct professor at the university’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. I have no inkling what the budget cuts may or may not do in my little corner of the world.)

Bruininks was nearly apologetic at the outset.

“At a time when the U is growing, we’re not asking that the U be given a free ride,” he began. “We need to do heavy lifting on our end.”

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who chairs the legislative commission and increasingly has used it during the session as a venue for DFL policy points, asked Bruininks right away about the stimulus dollars. Would they help?

“There are not enough stimulus dollars to mitigate the cuts,” Bruininks said, adding that the U was contemplating a double-digit tuition increase, perhaps as high as 15 percent. “We can’t add very much. I don’t want to burden our students and their families.”

Then the speaker and the president moved onto jobs. The U has already cut 1,000, and Bruininks figured another 500 to 700 job cuts would be necessary.

“Some 70 percent of every dollar we spend at the University of Minnesota pays for someone,” Bruininks said, meaning full-time, part-time and student employees. He said the U had already initiated early retirement incentives and a hiring freeze. (The total payroll, according to Bruininks, is about $2 billion.)

Heavy lifting at the U
Rep. Paul Kohls, R-Victoria, wanted to know exactly what the U was doing as far as what Bruininks referred to as heavy lifting.

“I assure you that every department, Representative Kohls, has undergone a rigorous and disciplined review,” Bruininks said. Kohls also wanted to know about budget reserves, which Bruininks said every department had, but that it amounted to one-time money, not enough to help over the next four years, which is the budget structure at the university.

“We’ve been aggressive in trying to solve revenue problems,” Bruninks continued. “We’ve added 200 freshmen to the new class next year, but we’re the second- or third-largest campus in the country, so we don’t have much elasticity on enrollment, and neither does Duluth, for that matter.”

Bruininks talked about the perils of seeking private and grant money in this economy, but added that tuition is “the quickest and easiest way” to make money.

Of course, he said that reluctantly. He noted that 80 percent of the U’s funding comes from sources other than the state’s coffers, and that, for the first time, the U’s tuition would hit $100 million.

Besides students, there was research and innovation on the line.

“We need access and affordability, but we also need innovation,” Bruininks asserted, adding that the U is among the top 10 universities in the country in bringing outside money to the state, and responsible for some $700 million and 25,000 jobs in the private sector. “We need to be a player. We could be a flyover state pretty easily.”

The mood on the legislative commission was pretty grim — testimony from the MnSCU chancellor after Bruininks was equally bleak — as Kelliher concluded, “You never hear anyone say the answer to our future is less education.”

But that, apparently, is what’s in store.

G.R. Anderson Jr. covers politics, the state Capitol and issues related to public safety.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Dale Carlton on 05/18/2009 - 12:21 pm.

    Terms like “pointedly did not complain” and “nearly apologetic” seem to be opposite of President Bruininks prior statements when he said he would go over to the Capitol if futher cuts in higher education were to be made. It seems that he was going to be forceful and perhaps angry about more cuts.

    Not much leadership from the top at the University of Minnesota.

  2. Submitted by Michael Fraase on 05/19/2009 - 03:06 pm.

    As a University of Minnesota civil service employee facing a involuntary 10% salary reduction, I have to point out that President Bruininks would be a lot more convincing if he — and his upper-level administration cohorts — would also take a salary reduction.

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