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U president: Problems exist but UMM campus sound

University of Minnesota President Bob Bruininks addressed a Community Coffee gathering Saturday morning at the Stevens County Historical Museum, in Morris.

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

The University of Minnesota, Morris is suffering severe economic problems, as are the U of M system, the state, country and the world.

But that doesn't portend the possible closure of the Morris campus, U of M President Bob Bruininks said Saturday.

In fact, UMM's unique qualities might actually position the campus for future growth in such a financial climate, he said.

"It's more challenging and difficult in a smaller community, where the number of college-age students is declining, to sustain a campus and quality education," Bruininks said. "UMM is facing challenges, but it has a lot of distinct advantages. It's a high-quality campus and a great value, and as education costs rise, increasingly people will be looking for the best relationship between quality and value."

Bruininks, his wife Susan Hagstrum, U of M Senior Vice President Robert Jones and his wife, Lynn, and U of M Regent Dallas Bohnsack and his wife, Joanie, attended a Community Coffee at the Stevens County Historical Museum Saturday. The U officials also were in town for the annual Jazz Fest and to honor the achievements of retiring Fest founder James "Doc" Carlson and his wife, Kay.

The coffee gathering opened with the Kiwanis Quartet singing two comedic renditions that poked fun at the university system's current budget troubles and UMM's experimental biomass plant, which currently is idle as design difficulties are addressed. The quartet ended with The Platters song, "(You've Got) The Magic Touch," in recognition of, as singer Jim Thoreen noted, Bruininks' "ability to get things done in a very special way."

Bruininks, who is a Jazz Fest regular, said it was "special and poignant" to be able to honor Carlson's UMM legacy, and said the biomass plant would be back on track soon.

"That's what happens when you're on the leading edge of new ideas," he said. "You don't always get it right and you have to adapt, you have to change."

He called UMM an "extraordinary place" and pointed out that the Morris campus has the highest percentage of award-winning faculty in the U of M system. That distinction is warranted, he said, noting that UMM this year produced two Truman Scholars. Only the U.S. Naval Academy, Yale and Stanford -- "little backwater places," Bruininks joked -- also produced two Truman Scholars.

"You don't get these awards without faculty and staff really working with students," he said.

Bruininks discussed the U of M system's current financial difficulties, including a projected $200 million shortfall in the next biennium, and the need to keep moving ahead with innovation, research and development at a time when retrenchment would be an easy position to stake out. Investing in education is the one sure way back out of what he called an "economic ditch."

For the first time since the Civil War era, tuition support will outpace state support for the university, and that by 2012, state support will lag by more than $100 million. That trend can't continue given the university's contributions to the state's economy, which Bruininks said is $700 million and 25,000 private-sector jobs. That puts the U of M second only to the University of Washington nationwide, he said.

"When I say the University of Minnesota is the economic engine of the State of Minnesota, I think I know what I'm talking about," he said. "It's something to be concerned about for those who are concerned about the future of the state."

The fiscal crisis might require cuts and tuition hikes, but Bruininks said the present situation can be used as "an opportunity to reform. When it's the toughest of times, that's when you roll up your sleeves and ask if we can do things better."

In that vein, the state's "flawed" tax system needs a significant overhaul, he said, noting that most experts agree that 30 percent to 40 percent of the problems in state support are tied to inadequacies of the current tax system in a 21st century economy.

"So our revenue streams are like a rollercoaster at Valley Fair," Bruininks said.

UMM can survive that ride because of the unique advantages it, and the area, boasts. UMM's renewable energy research and the presence of Extension, the West Central Research and Outreach Center and the ARS Soils Lab are attractive, especially at a time when the U of M system is striving to bring in even more international students, Bruininks said.

"They represent resources that have a lot of potential for people around the world," he said. "It gives them ways to connect their education to the challenges of development."

Federal stimulus money tied directly to higher education will alleviate some of the economic pressures, and the U of M system has no plans to shutter any of its coordinate campuses.

"There is no appetite, on my part or on the part of the Board of Regents, to close campuses," Bruininks said.

The system doesn't expect large numbers of layoffs, and that retirements and attrition may reduce the workforce -- which represents 70 percent of the U of M's overall budget -- to a degree that is fiscally manageable. However, much of that optimist outlook depends on maintaining state support, he said.

"You can't shrink the U's budget long-term without shrinking the workforce," Bruininks said.