U ex-president Bruininks moved $350K to his new post

Robert Bruininks
former University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks at MPR's UBS Forum for the Bright Ideas event on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2010.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

State lawmakers are raising questions about former University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks' handling of university funding in two separate instances. Earlier this week, legislators looked into payouts that Bruininks made to departing senior officials at the U. Now his ties to a program he funded while president have raised more questions.

During the last years of his presidency, Robert Bruininks guided more than $350,000 in university funding to the very program he'll be joining, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

His actions have raised some eyebrows among students, faculty, and legislators. Some question the fairness of the allocation, and they doubt the political wisdom of such a move in a time of rising tuition.

News of the spending comes just after a legislative hearing on more than $2 million in separation and transition packages Bruininks granted some outgoing top executives. A few legislators at the hearing found the payouts excessive.

State Rep. Mike Benson, R-Rochester, said he wants the Legislature to look deeper.

"I'm suspicious like anybody else," he said. "At this point I want to fact-find, I want to find out more."

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Bruininks has declined several MPR News requests for an interview. In an email, he said he was comfortable that he acted in the best interests of the university.

While he was president, Bruininks directed the university funds to the Center for Integrative Leadership in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Some of that money came from his discretionary funds as president. He also used money from his academic chair, granted by the university. And in his last year he budgeted the salaries of two of his staff members to join him as writers and researchers. He also helped fund the salary of the center's director.

He told the Star Tribune the funding would show the U was serious about the program, and that would attract donors.

Just how often that type of deal occurs is unclear. University officials said it's rare in the U's history that a president returns to the faculty.

But they also said Bruininks appears to have broken no rules. The president was free to use discretionary funding as he wished, though he needed to report to trustees how he spent it. The U's chief financial officer says no policy appears to prevent a president from spending money on a program he'll be involved with. And academic chair funding follows the person, not the program, so Bruininks was free to use that, too.

Regent Clyde Allen said he knew about the funding. He supports it, as does President Eric Kaler, who said it makes sense.

"Investing in it as the president did, it leveraged -- I understand -- significant private giving," said Kaler. "So at the end of the day, I think it was a good academic investment."

Some faculty and students haven't seemed particularly concerned over the amount of money involved or the size of Bruininks' staff.

Graduate student Abou Amara, who was a research assistant at the Center for Integrative Leadership for several months, said the center's staffing is thin. But faculty leader Chris Cramer joined others in saying the funding maybe wasn't the smartest move.

"From a political standpoint, it would have been much better if the resources had been provided by the subsequent administration in order to let ex-president Bruininks accomplish what might be a valuable academic mission," said Cramer. "That would separate the question of who moved the money where, from 'Is it worth spending the money?'"

And Chris Tastad, who chairs the Minnesota Student Legislative Coalition, wonders whether Bruininks sidestepped the grueling grant process other researchers must compete in.

"Are you, as an influential academic at the university, using that to gain a foothold above other academics?" Tastad asked, adding that he's also concerned that attention to Bruininks' financial decisions might carry repercussions for the university in the Legislature.

Rep. Benson said that issue is already on the radar of a number of his colleagues.

"Indeed this will be a discussion, especially when we look at next year's budget," said Benson. "I think we all have confidence in President Kaler. But we're going to want some evidence pretty quickly that he's going to address some of these things."

For now, Bruininks is serving as the interim president of the Bush Foundation, which has given money to Bruininks' center.

A Bush spokesman said the former president will have to disclose conflicts of interest and recuse himself from decisions where such conflicts exist.