Saturday, August 16, 2008

Robert Bruinks: True to U

From the Star-Tribune:

By Jeff Shelman, Star Tribune

August 16, 2008

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.

"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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

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.


*Buttressing my argument about reality are results from the latest ranking of Best Colleges (2008) by Forbes, the latest entrant in the ranking sweepstakes. These rankings all have problems, Bob, but in none of them are we even close to being "one of the top three public research universities in the world [sic]."

In the BigTen we are eleventh:

11 Northwestern
155 Illinois
161 Michigan
214 Indiana
272 Penn State
292 Ohio State
327 Michigan State
331 Iowa
335 Wisconsin
487 Purdue

524 Minnesota

And please do not refer again to those of us who would like Minnesota to be one of the top schools in the BigTen as "doubters," Bob.


David Samuels said...

Having taken a look at the "methodology" that Forbes uses to construct its ridiculous "rankings" (but I did go to Swarthmore...) here is a tongue-in-cheek response to your use of that ranking to poke at the U administration. Actually, I suspect someone in administration might take this seriously: since 25% of the Forbes ranking is based on the # of faculty in "Who's Who," the U should set up a task force to figure out how to get as many faculty as possible in that illustrious publication. I know that when I get "Who's Who" mailings in my faculty mail-slot, I toss them immediately in the circular file. I guess I'm just not doing my part!!!

Mr. B. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mr. B. said...

Thank you for your tongue in cheek comment, David.

You have it about half right. According to the Forbes article the exact criteria are:

"To answer these questions, the staff at CCAP (mostly college students themselves) gathered data from a variety of sources. They based 25% of the rankings on 7 million student evaluations of courses and instructors, as recorded on the Web site Another 25% depends on how many of the school's alumni, adjusted for enrollment, are listed among the notable people in Who's Who in America.

The other half of the ranking is based equally on three factors: the average amount of student debt at graduation held by those who borrowed; the percentage of students graduating in four years; and the number of students or faculty, adjusted for enrollment, who have won nationally competitive awards like Rhodes Scholarships or Nobel Prizes."

You might not like Forbe's methodology - and neither do I - they are clearly absurd. But we don't do much better, relative to the other schools in the BigTen, in the USNews rankings.

So Swarthmore may be annoyed at you for not sending in your Who's Who application. (If you did, no doubt they would surpass Harvard in the rankings!) You and I have to get Nobel Prizes, or what ever political scientists get, in our efforts to help the U in the polls.

But maybe we could have a task force to look into why our undergrads leave the U with the highest debt of any public school in the BigTen, even more than Michigan, $5,000 more than Iowa and Wisconsin and $10,000 more than Illinois. This data is on the Kiplinger website and I haven't seen it contradicted.

Unfortunately for us, as you can see above, graduation rates and debt at graduation are factored into the Forbes rankings and this is killing us. It's also probably the reason that Illinois does so well.

Best regards,

Bill Gleason