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Exactly the Wrong Thing to Say, At the Wrong Time?

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OurCEO has another op-ed....

Commentary: Exactly the wrong time to cut funds for U of M

by Robert Bruininks

July 27, 2009

In many ways, the university is Minnesota's economic engine, and the value we provide to the state continues to increase. So it's no secret that I've been disappointed to see higher education sink lower and lower on the list of state budget priorities.

[You have heard of this budget deficit thing, Bob?]

Many experts agree that research universities, and the educational, research and creative opportunities they provide, are essential to economic growth and prosperity. If that's true, Minnesota is disinvesting at the exact wrong moment.

[Disinvesting? Hardly. What is this thing called The House That Bob Built? What are these new buildings that are going up? What are you thinking saying such a thing?]

For the second time in six years, our state funding has been cut deeply, requiring difficult decisions about which academic programs and initiatives must expand, which should be maintained, which should be substantially reduced or consolidated and which eliminated.

[Difficult decisions that must be made by highly compensated administrators, such as yourself?]

Such decisions are made more difficult by two factors:

First: The significant cut to our state funding in 2003, followed closely by the development and implementation of our strategic plan, transformed the way we deliver on our public mission. The more obvious changes have been exhausted. The decisions we face now cannot be easily done or undone, and will have lasting effects on the university, our students and the state.

[Perhaps some elements of the strategic plan were/are a mistake and should be modified. The sacred strategic plan is not exactly in the same category as the Ten Commandments, last I checked..]

Second: The national economy and the state's budget woes do not correspond to the health of the university. Most of the university's key indicators are up, students value our degrees, and employers want our graduates. We are being pushed to downsize despite growing demand.

[Ah, excuse me... Where are you coming from with the statement that employers want our graduates? What percent of our graduates this year are unable to find jobs? Presumably students do value our degrees since undergrads leave the U of M carrying the highest debt load in the BigTen.]

I believe that reduced public funding constitutes the "new normal" for public universities. This represents one of several new realities we face, including an aging population, a diminishing workforce, increasing diversity, intense competition for resources and students, and growing demands for additional accountability.

[Yes, Bob, it is a new reality. And people like you had better learn how to deal with it.]

As a result, we will need to become more nimble and responsive, more productive and efficient, more service-oriented and competitive, in order to generate new sources of revenue, recruit and retain talented students, and attract and compensate high-performing faculty and staff.

[And perhaps return to the priorities of a land-grant institution?]

We've made substantial progress on each of those goals, and we have a long-term vision for the University of Minnesota system that goes well beyond the next budget cycle.

[Do you mean that we should trust you, because you have a plan? Another president in another time had a plan and it was disastrous.]

Groucho Marx once famously remarked, "Those are my principles, and if you don't like them ... well, I have others." Our principles don't change in response to short-term pressures, because they are the right principles: academic quality, affordable access, unparalleled service, groundbreaking innovation and responsible stewardship.

[Those are our principles? All of these matters are debatable, but so far such debates have not occurred. Claims, however, have been made. The results of a lack of consensus building on who we are and where we want to go have been painfully obvious. Consensus building is what good leaders do.]

We are educating students to meet the long-term human capital needs of the state, and generating new knowledge and ideas to solve many of society's most pressing problems. I believe these goals transcend hard times and should not be abandoned lightly.

[Human capital? George Orwell would be pleased. Let me just say: Regents scholarship.]

The University of Minnesota was founded before Minnesota became a state, by visionary leaders who saw an abiding public good in the advancement of knowledge. Setting public priorities demands such strong leadership.

[Cough, cough. I could say something here, but I won't.]

Clearly, we must continue to do more on our own to realize our vision -- to improve academic quality, reduce costs and increase productivity. But it is also time for a serious discussion about Minnesota's vision for higher education.

[And when is this discussion going to occur, Dr. Bruininks? Will it be a conversation along the lines of that offered by Provost Sullivan?]

A world-class land grant and research university costs money, but the cost of mediocrity will be even greater.

Bob, you need to stop using straw man arguments. This type of rhetoric is disturbing to anyone who wants to have a serious discussion. It is not a question of either a world-class university or mediocrity. Let's aim to be one of the best schools in the BigTen. And please stop dismissing those who aim for this as "doubters."

Finally-

In two years we will be going over Niagra Falls in a rowboat. OurCEO and many members of the OldGuard will not be in the boat when this happens. It would be prudent to start looking for a new president sooner, rather than later, so that he or she has a chance to learn how to navigate. It would be best for the University if President Bruininks were to ask that a search for his successor commence immediately. The Regents who will be responsible for the search are on board and they are starting to think long term about how to deal with economic reality and priorities given our resources, something President Bruininks appears to find difficult, witness this piece. If the president is truly interested in the long term good of the University, he should take this suggestion.

Repeating the same tired phrases in this opinion piece is not an example of the type of leadership that will be needed at the University of Minnesota in the very near future.

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