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 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.


This bothered almost no one. The U had been fiercely egalitarian from its founding, in 1851, on the east bank of the Mississippi River near St. Anthony Falls. It closed briefly and then reopened in 1867 as a land-grant institution, one of the many public-research universities created across the country by the federal government at the height of the Industrial Revolution to educate the masses.

Over the years, as the U added satellite campuses in Duluth, Morris, Crookston, Rochester, and Waseca (now closed), it has remained separate from Minnesota’s state college system, known as MnSCU, and is the state’s only research university, home to Minnesota’s largest medical school and most prodigious laboratories. Like its land-grant peers in Madison, Berkeley, East Lansing, etc., the U was designed to be an unusual creature: a place where students with unremarkable backgrounds could learn from remarkable people—Nobel Prize–winning professors. Open Wide the Door, the title of a history of the U published in 1959, reflected this ideal: let ’em all in—access as an end in itself.

“Here’s a U story that everyone used to know,” recounts Ann Pflaum, the university’s historian. “During the Great Depression, a skinny wrestler from Iowa gets into the U’s General College,” a sort of remedial school where the bar to entry was even lower. “He gets a degree in forestry, can’t find a job, and returns to the U for his PhD in plant pathology. The Rockefeller Foundation sends him to Mexico and in 1970 he’s given the Nobel Peace Prize.”

Pflaum pauses. “That kid was Norman Borlaug,” she says, “and his chance transformation from Iowa kid to the man who fed the world happened because of the U.” Even now, Pflaum says, the story “almost brings tears to the eyes.”

Back then, the U could afford to be generous: it was flush with state money. Throughout the 1970s, the state of Minnesota was supplying nearly 50 percent of the U’s budget. And then the money began to disappear.

One morning in the spring of 2003, less than a year after he’d ascended to the presidency, Bruininks woke up to a $185 million state-funding cut—some 12 percent of the U’s budget, the largest cut in its history and a hole about four times the size of the U’s law school budget. Bruininks would be compelled to fill it by raising tuition by 15 percent, the largest percentage ever at the U. He would also lay off 300 people and initiate a wage freeze, prompting a strike on campus. The U’s long-running bargain with Minnesotans of low tuition and low expectations was over.

Bruininks grew up in public schools. He’s modestly wealthy now, having lately pulled in some $650,000 a year in salary and benefits as the U’s president (about average for the Big Ten), but he didn’t grow up rich. He was raised on a hobby farm just west of Grand Rapids, Michigan. His father worked the farm and assembled auto upholstery on a factory line. Bruininks went to Western Michigan University, initially majoring in music before detouring into educational psychology, studying children with disabilities. In the summers, he labored in construction and landscaping. He turned down other teaching offers to come to Minnesota as he liked the outdoors and the familiar Midwestern modesty.

In conversation, Bruininks is disarming, tending to lean forward, an arm outstretched if there’s a table in front of him, his face cradled unselfconsciously in his hand. He’s in for the duration; the conversation ends only when you or his handlers say so. He’s retained a musician’s ability to exhale for long stretches without taking a breath, so that his sentences run on in murmuring monotone. He can sound, all by himself, like a circle of old friends talking quietly after midnight, the kids asleep upstairs.

Bruininks is not going to steamroll anyone. “He’s not a competitive son-of-a-bitch,” says Mary Jo Kane, who has known him since his days as a dean more than two decades ago. That said, when Bruininks’s back is against the wall, he fights. “I’ve never seen him defeated—ever,” says Kane. “If he encounters a wall, the only question is whether he’ll go over the wall, around the wall, or through the wall. But he will get to the other side of the wall.”

Back in 2003, Bruininks wasn’t facing a wall but a cliff. Funding for higher education peaked in Minnesota in 1978. Since then, Minnesotans have devoted a steadily smaller percentage of their income to funding the U and the state’s other public universities. The trend is the same across the country—state support for higher education has fallen on average by 39.8 percent since 1980—but in only five states has the decline been more precipitous. On a chart, the trend since 1961 looks like a mountain range: sloping sharply upwards, peaking in the Governor Wendell Anderson years, then gently descending to the Governor Tim Pawlenty years, where it quickly drops.

With the latest cut, Bruininks was about to fall off the cliff. So he decided to go around it.


In the summer of 2004, Bruininks unveiled a plan boldly titled “Transforming the U.” It would create a new bargain with Minnesotans—a more private-school bargain—of high tuition, high financial aid, and high expectations, on the basis that students had become a more predictable source of revenue for the U than the state.

Raising tuition was relatively easy. Indeed, Bruininks let it double in just a few years (though at about $12,500 a year it’s still just average for the Big 10—about a quarter of what you’d pay at Harvard). He also unleashed more financial aid, such that the net cost for most students has risen by only 3.5 percent.

Raising expectations has been a more sensitive issue.

Bruininks knew that if he was going to drastically hike tuition he’d have to give students more bang for their bigger buck; more prestige. He’d have to make the U more elite. That meant tackling the appalling graduation rate—and raising the bar to entry.

The plan set higher graduation goals, stricter entrance requirements, and called for the recruitment of more talented students and faculty. It also put forth a new aspiration for the U: to become one of the top three public research universities in the world—in 10 years.

Judith Martin, a longtime geography professor and faculty leader at the U, explains the plan this way: “The biggest way you can improve your rankings is to graduate students in four years and buy yourself a couple of Nobel Prize–winning profs, right? Takes care of everything else. If your football team can win, that’s icing on the cake.”

In short order, six colleges at the U were closed, including the General College, a traditional entry point for under-prepared students and a drag on graduation rates. For decades, U presidents had attempted to shutter the college only to be accused of discrimination. When Bruininks proposed the closure, students held a sit-in at his office, shouting that he would be disproportionately affecting students of color. Nine protestors were arrested. But Bruininks dissolved the college anyway.

He also spruced up the notoriously neglected Minneapolis campus to foster the more collegiate feel of a traditional, four-year university. He brought football back to campus, of course, building the charming TCF Bank Stadium. And he expanded freshmen orientation, previously little more than a couple days of date-rape discussions and credit-card solicitations, to a full week of intense talks on getting around the U—and getting out in a timely fashion.

Freshmen are now expected to arrive at orientation with a major in mind. And for the first time in the modern history of the U, they are addressed as a four-year cohort, the way students are at private universities, as in the “Class of 2014.” They pose for a class photo on the turf of TCF Bank Stadium and they’re handed a white envelope—inside is a tassel marked with their expected year of graduation, four years hence.

The good old U—the school with the doors wide open, the birthright of every Minnesotan—is now gone, as surely as the Gophers wear maroon and gold and always choke at the homecoming game. The four-year graduation rate has doubled. The average high-school rank of incoming freshmen has risen by nine percent.

The new U, if not exactly ranked third in the world, has moved up a handful of notches in most surveys to ninth among American public research universities.

To the lucky applicants who have recently gotten into the U, the new bargain is a good one: having the school on their resumé carries more prestige than it did just a short time ago.

To the unlucky, whose parents might have gone to the U and their parents before them and their parents before them, the new U is a place of shrinking opportunity. As the bar to entry has been raised, the acceptance rate for Minnesota students has dropped by about 15 percent. Last year’s student president, Sarah Shook, has said she probably wouldn’t be accepted if she had to enroll today. The young Norman Borlaug wouldn’t stand a chance.

“What’s going on is pretty clear,” says Bill Gleason, an associate professor of laboratory medicine and pathology at the U who writes a Star Tribune column on the university. “It’s this goal of becoming one of the top three research institutions—the U is trying to goose its numbers. Which is misguided—it’s the people of Minnesota who matter. If we educate people here, there’s a good chance they’ll stay here, and I think it’s very important to get Minnesota kids to stay here.”

Bruininks suggests that the U’s doors aren’t closing, they’re just differently opened. “We have been unapologetic about demanding more preparation of students,” he says. “It’s not about denying access or about being arrogant or elitist. It’s about strengthening the academic culture here.”

Martin, who headed the Faculty Consultative Committee when it recommended Bruininks for the presidency, backs him up. “You make the U a better school when you only let in the best, most talented students,” she says. “It’s not complicated, but it’s also a strategy that makes a lot of Minnesotans unhappy.”

Bruininks isn’t the first president to try to change the U’s culture. Many of his goals were first proposed by Kenneth Keller, the president of the U in the mid-1980s. After three tumultuous years, in which he pushed a plan called Commitment to Focus, Keller resigned.

For the past five years, Keller has lived in Bologna, Italy, where he heads an outpost of his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University. Reached by phone, he’s chatty and avuncular, and any disappointment over his tenure seems long displaced by a sense of qué será, será, if not vindication.

“Education really mattered to people then,” he says of Minnesota in the 1980s. “You felt it everywhere in the state. And in essence there was one university. Of course there was the community college system and the state college system, but the old system that existed before Minnesota became a state—that was so important to people.”

But there was also, he says, “this attitude that the U ought to serve anyone who wanted to go—the smart kids could go to Harvard.” He sighs. “To me, access was meaningless if it wasn’t access to quality. Is quality equivalent to elitism? I argued it was not.”

Keller’s staff wrote every middle school in the state to put students on notice: entrance standards would be raised. Aspirants would have to take certain, more advanced classes to enter the U. “If they didn’t want to take those courses,” Keller says, “we had the community colleges and state college system for them.”

The blowback was immediate, casting Keller—born, bred, and schooled on the East Coast—as an elitist outsider. Thereafter, his moves were closely scrutinized and often misconstrued: an expensive kitchen remodeling at Eastcliff, the U’s presidential home, for example, was perceived as a private benefit to Keller when in fact the kitchen is used for catering official U events. Pflaum, the U historian, calls Keller’s downfall “just plain freaky bad luck.”

It would be nearly two decades before Bruininks was able to successfully take up Keller’s cause. Times would change, allowing Bruininks to improve the U. But it would not be a change he necessarily welcomed.


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.