U of M president dishes about budget


Rappin’ with Robert: a Q&A with Bob Bruininks

The Daily sat down with President Bob Bruininks on Monday in Morrill Hall to discuss the status of the soon-to-expire Coca-Cola contract, strategic positioning progress, staff contract negotiations and how the president spent his Fourth of July weekend.

The Coca-Cola Company’s exclusive deal to sell beverages on campus is set to expire at the end of the year. How is the renegotiating process coming along?

The RFP (request for proposal) has been issued, and I imagine the responses are in and people are reviewing them now. This request for proposals was designed to give the University as much flexibility as possible.

You can have a combined food and beverage contract with a single vendor or you can separate beverage from the food contract, so it gives us a lot of flexibility.

There’s also in the RFP something that I think is really important, particularly given the controversy over these contracts generally, and … a corporate responsibility statement is built right into the proposal. I know that’s been a concern of some students – not just here but around the country.

So what does the University use the revenue from these contracts for?

In the case of the Coca-Cola Corporation contract, a significant amount – literally millions of dollars – went directly into student services. Whatever small margin of profit there was on the contract, the decision was made early on to make sure that was dedicated to mostly supporting student activities.

(We put the money) toward student organizations and student events, whether they’re cultural or social events. Some money went into intramural sports and other such activities, and some money went into student advisement and career services. The dollars were directed directly back to students, and I think that’s the way it ought to go in the future.

What other advantages does the University gain from these contracts?

One of the things that people will consider is whether the new contract can also be structured in a way that will really restrain the increase in cost of food and beverages. (It will also ensure) that we have better choice and improved quality of food and services all across the campus.

Is this particular contract going to be more lucrative for the University than previous ones because of the rights to sell in the on-campus stadium?

That’s part of the flexibility of the contract that companies can bid with the stadium or without it included in the contract. There will also be other food vendors in the stadium in addition to the corporations selected for the main contract here.

The University must be sitting in a good position, as it watches Coke and Pepsi duke it out for exclusivity rights.

There may be other competitors than those two in the mix, and we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

The 2007-2008 budget was passed at the Board of Regents’ last meeting. How do you think this budget contributes to advancing the goals of the strategic-positioning initiative?

The University has really been through some rough budgetary challenges, especially during my tenure as president, and what was heartening this year was that the University received 80 to 85 percent of its budget request from the state of Minnesota. By any calculation, we’re pleased with the result of this legislative session.

It didn’t give the University everything it needs, but it provided the opportunity to reduce the increase in tuition costs, provided the opportunity to support scholarship programs – particularly for low- and moderate-income students – and it enabled us to make some very important investments to improve the quality of education and support for our students. It also allowed us to make important research investments that will keep the quality of the University strong.

I felt better with the approval of this budget than I have with any of the others I have been associated with in the last five years.

How successful have the efforts to keep higher education affordable been, in your opinion?

I think this effort has been very effective. It has been really strategic in its focus to help lift the possibilities of low-income students, to do everything we can to increase the scholarship support for middle-income students. I think overall this is really making a difference.

How are things looking in terms of the next couple years for the University?

(The budget) will set up a framework for the next two years.

We have a little bit of a challenge in the next year, the second year of this biennium budget, in that the legislative appropriation is less than we hoped for. We’ll have some challenges in the out years, the next two-year budget cycle. I’m hopeful that the Minnesota economy will strengthen, and we’ll be in a good position to make a strong request for resources the next time we go back to the Legislature in two years.

Contract negotiations are currently underway between the University and its support workers. How exactly do you, as an administrator, balance striving toward advancing the University as a research institution with making sure employees receive a decent living wage?

Making sure our faculty and staff are appropriately compensated, in relationship to our own community and the community of higher education is a really important value.

I think we have an outstanding faculty and staff at the University of Minnesota, and I feel they deserve to be treated fairly and I believe they deserve to be compensated in an appropriate and fair way.

Most of the employees at the University of Minnesota are not under bargaining-unit contracts, but about 30 percent of our employees are, and we’re now in negotiations with the different bargaining units. I expect we’ll come to a satisfactory conclusion to these discussions.

The University actually left room in the budget for wage increases, didn’t it?

In the state budget … we asked the state for 3.25 percent, in terms of an overall average compensation increase plus increased fringe-benefit costs.

We want a fair result for our employees. We want our employees to be enthused about working here at the University of Minnesota. We want them to find the University to be a fair and good, positive employer.

So what factors do you take into consideration during the negotiation process?

It is a fine balancing act, but I think you have to be fair to your employees at the same time. I think you have to look at a wide range of issues. You have to look at the availability of your resources, you have to look at the competitive market place – how people are paid to do different positions in our society.

Are we being competitive? Do we have really good, strong benefits and retirement programs for the people who work here?

I happen to believe any analysis will show the benefits programs of the University are among the very, very best in the state of Minnesota, and I would rank them among the very best nationally.

You need to look at all those things and then you have to look at whether you provide the kind of environment that gives people a supportive atmosphere, an opportunity that really allows people to grow and develop their skills. I think all of that is in the mix.

The University does regard its staff as its most important asset. We are an organization that creates ideas, that educates students and shares ideas and the solutions to society’s most vexing problems. You do that with people, so nearly 80 cents of every dollar that comes into the University in some way finds its way into supporting the compensation and benefits of our faculty and staff.

I’m deeply proud of the faculty and staff at the University of Minnesota. Occasionally we disagree on different issues, but there’s no disagreement on their importance to the long-term future of the University. We can’t be a better University without a very strongly committed faculty and staff.

So on a lighter note, how’d you spend your Fourth of July?

I was up on the Gunflint Trail, right on the Boundary Waters. About 30 years ago, I started building a small fishing cabin in the area and have been working on that over the years, so we were there.

I did a couple of other things that were pretty interesting too. … The day before the Fourth of July we went out on a boat on Seagull Lake and visited Fish Hook Island and Three Mile Island, where the most intense part of the Ham Lake fire was this summer. I walked the island and really inspected the fire firsthand. This particular fire … came within a quarter-mile of our cabin. It was a close call.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to do any fishing while up there. Maybe next time I will.