The Man Who Slew The U
It was cheap and easy to get into, the school with the doors wide open, the birthright of every Minnesotan. But to save the U, Bob Bruininks had to destroy it.
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On a corner of Bruininks’s desk sits a book he’s practically memorized: The Great American University. When it was published last year, Bruininks invited the author, Jonathan Cole, to join him in a public conversation at the U. Bruininks still mentions the book with such regularity in his speeches and interviews that you’d suspect him of being a co-author.
Of the book’s 616 pages, some 150 are devoted to one long inventory of groundbreaking inventions and discoveries attributable to research universities: lasers, the basis for computers, the identification of the insulin gene, magnetic resonance imaging, the algorithm for Google.
When Bruininks refers to the book, it’s generally while making a case for public funding of the U, arguing that the school’s innovations—from the first open-heart surgery to the first wearable pacemaker—have long comprised an economic engine for Minnesota. They’ve spurred entrepreneurship, saved lives, and ameliorated serious social issues: “All part of government’s obligation,” Bruininks says.
Perhaps the greatest marvel of universities like the U, however, isn’t what they’ve created but that they exist at all. When President Lincoln signed the Morrill Land Grant Act in 1862, establishing public-research universities in every state, it was a novel idea to let average citizens study side by side with elites. It was a distinctly democratic notion.
“America grew up with a greater sense of egalitarianism than many countries in Europe,” Cole, a former provost of Columbia University, told me. “There was a belief in the American dream, and the path to that dream was through education—as much as one could receive. By increasing the number of college graduates, we produced an unprecedented level of human capital that allowed the nation to broadly prosper.”
I asked Cole why he was speaking of this phenomenon in the past tense, and he replied, “To some extent, it is in the past tense.”
He may be right. After years of being told that college graduates go on to make more money than their degree-less colleagues, Americans have come to equate education with earnings—a private good of value to no one but themselves. This is the change that Bruininks saw coming, and it scared him: if people believe that education only benefits the beholder, why would they want to pay for anyone’s but their own?
Increasingly, they don’t. Many public universities now receive so little state funding that they are referred to in education circles as merely state-assisted or public-assisted. The University of Michigan gets less than six percent of its budget from the state. Penn State is now facing what may be the largest appropriation cut in the history of American higher education—a 50-percent reduction, which would shrink its level of state revenue to just four percent of all funding.
When public universities like the U are forced to turn to a private-school funding model, they inevitably become more exclusive—the thing they were created 150 years ago to defy. They typically ramp up recruitment of out-of-state students, who pay a premium to attend. At the University of Vermont, an extreme example, three-quarters of freshmen now hail from outside the state.
At the U, nonresident students comprise about 30 percent of the student body—roughly the same percentage as Michigan—though only about 6.5 percent are not from states with tuition reciprocity. The U is seeking to raise that number. In 2007, to draw more out-of-state students, it cut the cost of nonresident tuition; it’s now the lowest amount in the Big 10. Bruininks says the idea isn’t to raise money but to encourage young people from elsewhere to settle in Minnesota, boosting the state’s aging workforce. Whatever the intention, the effect is the same: a financial shot in the arm—and less enrollment for Minnesotans.
Year after year during his presidency, Bruininks trudged to the Capitol to plead his case for the U and was almost always asked to do more with less. Then he went away and did just that. He didn’t gripe and moan. “With Bob, it’s never been, ‘Oh my God, you can’t cut the U’s funding, we’re too special, we’re too important!’” says Charlie Weaver, the head of the Minnesota Business Partnership. “He’s been open to swallowing the bitter pill. All he’s asked for is flexibility, to do it in a strategic way.”
But during his last year in office, Bruininks appeared to have had enough. He broadly accused legislators of “a race to the bottom” in their spending cuts and of causing a “train wreck” to foster their vision of social change. As for the U continuing to do more with less, he said, “we’re out of less.”
Bruininks now says there is a limit to how much the U can privatize and still serve Minnesotans. He notes that universities in places like Michigan, Vermont, and Virginia can draw enough out-of-state students to subsidize locals—they’re close enough to the large and wealthy population centers of the East Coast. “We’re too isolated,” he says.
Judith Martin agrees: “That’s absolutely true. Michigan is within striking distance of the East Coast and Chicago. We’re not within striking distance of anywhere, really. What, Winnipeg?”
Still, as public funding keeps slipping, the U may have little choice but to continue privatizing. To Minnesotans who lament the tougher standards—who cry that the U is no longer the people’s university—Martin has a simple reply: too bad.
“You can complain about the changes,” Martin says. “But the U’s response is, well, you think you’re paying for this whole thing with your taxes but at the moment it looks like you’re only paying 18 percent. When 50 percent of the funding was coming from the state, maybe you could legitimately say, ‘Hey, it’s my tax dollars!’ Yeah, well, it’s not anymore.”
Last year, the U quietly passed something of a privatization milestone: for the first time, tuition accounted for more of the U’s budget than state funding. Bruininks says diplomatically, “The state is now a minor, but still important, investor.”
For his last major appearance before the Legislature, this past February, Bruininks wore a maroon tie and a don’t-screw-with-me look. He spoke forcefully, at times almost shouting. The U, he warned legislators, is nearing a “tipping point” in resources, beyond which the medical school, by far the largest supplier of doctors in the state, may close. The surgeons who have saved the lives of many Minnesotans with groundbreaking transplants and other treatments will leave. The researchers coming tantalizingly close to cracking the mysteries of Alzheimer’s and AIDS will cease their work.
The lawmakers looked at Bruininks impassively. He would be leaving the presidency the way he came into it—with a massive funding cut.
A week later, in his office, he was more relaxed. It was late in the day. He could talk about the future of the U with some distance. “People believe you can just keep cutting things,” he gently complained to me, “and somehow they’ll just keep coasting along.” After a moment, he added, “Minnesota can choose to unilaterally disarm and send its best sminds elsewhere—or it can be as wise as it has been in the past.”
In the fall, Bruininks will yield his office to Eric Kaler, the genial current provost of Stony Brook University, near New York City. Kaler will have to jump right into fundraising, if not a full-blown capital campaign—garnering donations is a much bigger part of the job than it was when Bruininks became president.
As the setting sun lit up his office, Bruininks got ready to leave. His son was coaching girl’s hockey that night in Northfield, and he wanted to see the game. But he kept talking anyway. Of course, he said, the U is doing well by almost every measure, improving academically faster than many other universities. The only thing that isn’t going up, he noted, is state support. Which means the U is getting better in spite of, not because of, the state it serves.
Tim Gihring is a senior editor for Minnesota Monthly.