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Best of times, worst of times for U, Bruininks says
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While enrollment and graduation numbers are something to celebrate, Bruininks said those successes cannot be maintained if the university doesn't change. (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks says now is the best -- and worst -- time for the university to pursue its ambitions to be among the top three public research universities in the world. Bruininks made his comments during his annual State of the University speech on Thursday.

Minneapolis, Minn. — The state of the University of Minnesota is good. But it could be better -- much better -- said University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks.

"This is a time to reach for the stars," he said. "I know that sounds corny. It's time to really aspire to something better than we have been. And it's the worst possible time to do it, I know. But it's the right thing to do, it's the right time to do it. It's worthy of the heritage of the University of Minnesota."

In the past year the university managed to graduate a record 12,000 students. And, Bruininks said the U is on track to receive more than 20,000 applications for just over 5,000 undergraduate spaces in the Twin Cities. It's a ten percent increase over last year, which also saw a record number of applications.

While enrollment and graduation numbers are something to celebrate, Bruininks said those successes cannot be maintained if the university doesn't change. He said the university must recognize, and adjust to, the changing conditions of higher education.

Bruininks highlighted declining state support as top among those changing conditions.

Bruininks says state per capita support has declined from sixth in the nation in 1978 to 26th today. He called the drop in state funding "scandalous" for Minnesota, which once called itself the "brainpower state."

"This particular state is in the top 10 of states nationally in per-capita income," he said. "It has everything to do with the University of Minnesota, with other contributors in higher education, with the investment this state has historically made in education."

Another challenge the university must face, said Bruininks, is maintaining access for all students.

To that end, the president announced a new scholarship initiative that would help low-income students fill the gap between their financial aid package and tuition.

"The Founders Opportunity Scholarship is a commitment to keep the doors to this university and the unique education it offers open to talented students from all walks of life," said Bruininks.

Once the scholarship is fully implemented, Bruinkins said more than 8,000 low-income freshmen will be eligible for aid packages worth $8,000 to $10,000 annually. The scholarships will be funded from university and private money.

Bruininks said demographic changes in the next decade will increase the challenge. He said graduating high school seniors will increasingly come from minority, low-income, and immigrant households. He said in the next few months he'll present strategies for how the university can deepen its ties to the K-12 education system to better prepare students for college.

The challenges are recognized as part of the University's Strategic Planning process, in the works for the past several months. The goal of the strategic plan is to make the university one of the top three research universities in the world.

Bruininks said two task forces are expected to recommend changes next month that will move the university's strategic plan forward.

He has said there will be changes, and possibly the elimination of some academic programs. But exactly how the university will achieve its goals is unclear.

The current lack of details about the strategic plan frustrated some members of the audience of about 150 staff, faculty, and students. Coordinate campuses also listened in by teleconference.

But overall, the president's bold talk excited audience members like Vicki Courtney, a University Senate administrator.

"I thought it was very uplifting," she said. "I think it was exciting and and something that those of us that have been at the university for awhile, have been hoping for. I think it's a challenge we've got ahead, probably the biggest challenge is involving all the constituent groups in the discussions about what change is going to be."

Though the president's speech was titled "Creating the Future," he didn't want those listening to lose sight of today, and what's happening at the Capitol.

The university is still waiting on its $158 million bonding request from last session. And lawmakers are still mulling over the U's request for $126 million in new money.