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Budget problems, labor woes cast shadow over U of M
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University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks says the institution is robust and poised to become even greater despite its current budget crisis. At his State of the University address on Thursday Bruininks outlined recent university successes and new priorities for the coming year. Following the speech, Bruininks was put on the defensive by union workers and their supporters who are critical of the university's policy on salaries.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Fiscal austerity has become the theme and reality for university administrators since lawmakers earlier this year cut $185 million out of the university's upcoming biennial budget.

Bruininks reminded an audience of faculty, staff, students, and union workers, the cut was the largest in university history.

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Image Not happy employees

"Sadly, we've seen hundreds of layoffs, and the elimination of programs we can no longer support in the current funding environment. And, last, but by no means least, we've asked students to pay more toward their education than ever before," he said.

Bruininks says the university is able to weather the tough economic times because of the shared sacrifices made by everyone at the university.

The president used the rest of his 30-minute speech to focus on university successes, such as a strong student body, and new initiatives.

Bruininks says interdisciplinary work among academic programs will help the university leverage its strengths. "In chemical biology, for example, interdisciplinary work that creates new drugs and therapies and drugs for cancer patients is also accelerating the miniaturization of electrical circuits. Furthermore, the applied areas where the 'rubber hits the road' where art meets science, where technology meets health, and where policy meets philosophy, these are all intrinsically interdisciplinary and they are all part of the University's balanced academic culture."

Further emphasizing the university's commitment to interdisciplinary work, Bruininks outlined eight new commissioned areas of investment, including children, youth and families, arts and humanities, and a consortium on law, environment and the life sciences.

Other initiatives include bioscience and biotechnology, renewable energy, translational research, and research on brain development over the human lifespan.

Bruininks says some projects will be paid for through a reallocation of existing funds. But, he says the majority of the projects won't be possible without financial support from the state and the private sector.

The university's budget problems, and its stalled labor negotiations, hovered over the president's speech.

About a dozen people in the audience held signs that read, A Distribution Crisis, not a Budget Crisis. It's a slogan taken up by the university's unionized clerical workers in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3800.

At the time of the president's address, the AFSCME local was in the process of taking its first strike vote in its nearly 20-year history.

Union negotiators refused the university's final contract offer which included a wage freeze for the first year, and a 2.5-percent wage increase the second year. The contract also calls for increased health insurance premiums and copays.

Union leadership says the university HAS the resources to pay clerical workers more money and provide a better health benefits package.

AFSCME President Phyllis Walker confronted Bruininks during the question and answer session.

"There are 60 administrators at the university who make more than the governor. In order to share the pain, are you willing to scale back all university administrator salaries to that of the governor?" she asked.

"The answer is no. And I won't even think of it," Bruininks responded.

Bruininks says executives at the university are not overpaid.

That response brought shouts from the audience calling Bruininks "arrogant."

Further questioning from union sympathizers cut the forum short, but brought one last response from the president.

"You can continue to beat up on people like me. I can take it. That's not the problem. Let's go out there and make the case with the general public. They are the ones that cut the University of Minnesota by 15 percent this year. And that's the case you need to make," he said.

If AFSCME Local 3800 votes to reject the university's contract, it's nearly 2,000 clerical workers could be on strike by the end of the month.

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