What Bruininks thinks about the future of higher ed

Here are some excerpts from University of Minnesota President Bob Bruininks’ talk tonight on MPR’s Bright Ideas program.

These are just rough notes — not verbatim quotes – and have not been double-checked with the audio record.

On factors behind the rise in tuition at the University of Minnesota and how it has outstripped inflation:

First, we used to get 70 percent of our funding from the state, but now it’s 45 percent. The second cost driver is the impact of technology.  No place invests more in technology than the University of Minnesota and other colleges and universities. It’s very tech-intensive to support research and education. Third, the Consumer Price Index (a common measure of inflation) doesn’t include the cost of technology, buildings, labs and labor. And a place like the U competes on an international market, and so sustains higher than average (labor) costs.

On the impact of technology on efficiency, productivity and cost:

Technology has had a profound impact on the U’s productivity. We used to have long lines that snaked several blocks as students queued up to register from classes. Now they can do it from home or another part of the world online. It has helped us be much more efficient in the use of lab space. Tech also helps expand the U’s capacity for students.  But putting high-quality instruction online costs money. I don’t think influence of technology is to drive down costs, but to make the U more productive and expand its reach.

On lowering the cost of college in high school:

By taking college-credit courses in high school, some in the freshman class will have 30 credits when they walk in the door. That’s close to a year of college. If the high-school-to-college curriculum was better aligned, it could be the equivalent to getting a $25,000 scholarship. I’m a big advocate of the “college in the schools” programs. They can drive down costs and increase opportunities.

On whether the U should concentrate on graduate studies and research while leaving undergraduate general education to other colleges and universities in the state:

I don’t think it works that way. You can’t find major research universities that operate only on the graduate level. We’re in a market economy, and students are very selective. Many are looking for the Big 10 experience. Undergraduate education pays a big part of the cost of the University of Minnesota. Dividing up education like that would bankrupt the state.

On aligning K-12 and higher education systems so that students can make a cheaper, smoother transition into college:

I think achieving better integration has to be built on a platform. There needs to be an aligning of standards: rigorous courses, where you’re not just selling credits, and you have to make sure they deal with main areas of study in a college degree. And we have to change the funding and transfer systems. Right now there are very few incentives because the rate of reimbursement is pitifully low.

On the U’s original cancellation of the Troubled Waters environmental documentary (statements he made both on- and off-the-air):

I don’t know all the details, but it’s no big mystery. There’s absolutely nothing to the idea that this was influenced by external elements. And there was no self-censorship. Faculty and staff had concerns about the scientific strengths of the film. Unfortunately the decision was made late in the game. Vice President of University Relations Karen Himle acted with the best of intentions, and she enjoys my full confidence. The way things work in a university, we should do everything in our power to protect the academic freedom of the people who work there. What’s ironic is that I’ve spent a lot of time as president defending the rights of faculty in front of the most powerful interests in the state of Minnesota so those faculty could pursue lines of work that are inconvenient or popular in our society. And I’d do it again. I wish the whole thing had been handled better, I regret it and am embarrassed by it. I’ve asked people to look at the procedures to see that this doesn’t happen again.

On whether the bricks-and-mortar approach to education is becoming antiquated in the age of online learning:

I don’t think it is. If you ask students whether they want to study only online, you’ll get a resounding “no.” And these are the most technologically sophisticated citizens in the state. And they will tell you they’re attending Century College or Alexandria Technical and Community College or the University of Minnesota because they want that kind of human interaction, of learning in this rich environment.  And when alumni give back to their colleges and universities, they will tell you the story of the professor who transformed their lives, or tell you of the campus. Online universities play a powerful role and serve the needs of working adults. But I think it’s about giving people choices. Now I think we’ll have a shrinkage of bricks and mortar. We’ll be taking a million square feet offline at the U. We’ll be decommissioning three buildings in a few years, so we’ll shrink the footprint. We’ll use the space more productively, because it’s one of the serious cost drivers.