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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.

The Man Who Slew The U
Photo by Ackerman Gruber

(page 1 of 4)

The statue is wooden and roughly hewn, standing about five-foot-six—the size of a small man or a gigantic rodent. In this case, it’s both, depicting Goldy the Gopher, the U’s bucktoothed mascot. It was sent to Bob Bruininks as a gift. And because he didn’t know what to do with it, and still doesn’t, the statue has remained where the delivery person left it, beside Bruininks’s big oak President-of-the-University-of-Minnesota desk, peering over his shoulder.

“Isn’t that amazing?” Bruininks says with genuine awe.

Bruininks is awash in parting gifts—after nine years of leading the nation’s fourth-largest university, the city-within-a-city that is the U, he is stepping down at the end of this month. In the fall, he’ll return to teaching, just across campus in the education building, where he began his career 43 years ago. He’ll spend more time with his wife, Susan Hagstrum. He’ll fix up his cabin near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. He’ll get back in the saddle: since undergoing surgery for prostate cancer last year, he’s hardly ridden the horses he owns. A couple decades ago, he landed the second-largest walleye ever caught in Minnesota—hauled it ashore by the gills. He’d like to go for the record. At 69, he’s looking forward to relaxing.

He offers me a seat near the statue and gets out a notebook full of hand-written talking points. But he doesn’t need a cheat sheet to recount one of the most astonishing turnarounds of any university in the country. The U’s four-year graduation rate has doubled in a decade. Grants awarded to U researchers are up by 41 percent, the third-largest growth among the country’s top universities. Scholarship drives have pulled in a third of a billion dollars. The Gophers have a new football stadium in which to lose. Researchers have new facilities in which to battle cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer’s, and mortality itself.

Bruininks modestly calls his tenure “a period of some transformation.” His supporters are more aggrandizing: “He will go down as the greatest president in the modern history of the U,” predicts Mary Jo Kane, a U kinesiology professor.

Certainly no leader of the U since the first few—men like Cyrus Northrop and Lotus Coffman—have changed this place so profoundly. Several tried and failed. None faced the kind of budget cuts—hundreds of millions of dollars—that should have sent Bruininks reeling. Moreover, to change direction is to battle inertia, and the U has 160 years of the stuff. The U was here before the state itself. It’s the fifth-largest employer in Minnesota and, by its own measure, accounts for one of every 43 jobs in the state. It has some 68,000 students on five campuses and 400,000 graduates who care, to varying degrees, what becomes of it. And those are just the living alumni. This place has a past. And Bruininks has dared to confront it.

Maybe that’s why he’s feeling a bit self-conscious. He pauses our conversation to look at Goldy—because the statue seems to be looking at him. “Sometimes I feel like its eyes are moving,” he says. “Like it’s watching me, keeping me honest.”

When Bruininks arrived at the U in 1968, as a 26-year-old assistant professor of educational psychology, the place was in its laidback heyday. Credits were cheap, roughly the cost of a couple of Beatles records. The bar to entry was low. Some students wouldn’t even bother to register before the first day of classes; they’d simply show up and hope for the best, as invested in their education as they might be in a night at the movies.

Then, and for most of the next 35 years, as Bruininks was promoted and promoted again and finally installed as president in 2002, the student body remained largely monolithic: white, Minnesotan, smart but not especially bright. (In 2002, there were only 38 National Merit Scholars among the 5,300 or so freshmen at the U; by 2009, there were 112, the most in the Big 10.) Once enrolled, they entered a sort of time warp, a gopher hole in which the years seemed to pass unnoticed and students matriculated with the frequency of comets. The four-year graduation rate in 1992 was just 15.2 percent, the historic low. As recently as 2001, the U’s six-year graduation rate of 51 percent was good for dead last among the top 50 public universities in the country. Students worked. They dropped in, they dropped out. Knowledge settled on them gradually, like a gentle Minnesota snow.

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