New leaders express a vision for higher education in Minnesota

This is a time of major leadership transitions in Minnesota higher education, and recent speeches by Steven Rosenstone, the new MnSCU chancellor and Eric Kaler, the new University of Minnesota president suggest their community engagement priorities.  Both emphasize workforce development as a contribution to strong communities, call for more collaboration across sectors, and aim to increase college access and success among diverse students.  

Excerpts from Steven Rosenstone’s first major speech to the MnSCU Board of Trustees on September 20, 2011 (See full text here.)

Steven Rosenstone

For more than 150 years, our colleges and universities have prepared Minnesota’s workforce; we have supplied skilled employees for new and growing companies; we have graduated entrepreneurs who have started businesses in every town of our state; and we have educated the Minnesotans who knit together the fabric of our communities – from teachers and social workers to police officers and nurses. That role cannot diminish in the face of current financial challenges . . .

Most people I’ve met give huge credit to our colleges and universities for the important role they play ensuring the vitality of communities across our state. People shared with me, in vivid detail, the kinds of partnerships with businesses and organizations that have been key to their community’s success, especially customized training and our willingness to pitch in and help solve local problems. . .

An extraordinary education means graduates who have the capacity to adapt to the four or more careers they are likely to have over their lifetimes; think independently and critically; resourcefully applying knowledge to new problems; and work effectively across cultural and geographic boundaries An extraordinary education enables student to achieve their objectives and prepares them to learn for a lifetime.

Consider some of the ideas currently on the table. We might . . .

  • Rethink the classroom experience to infuse every learning experience with project-based active learning.
  • Bring learning closer to the world of practice.
  • Develop thoughtful measures of learning outcomes and deliver programs that enable graduates to meet those standards.
  • Increase collaboration among faculty across our colleges and universities to create the best possible courses and share them across the system. Turn loose the best minds to develop the best courses. . . .

We need to redesign the way we do things. We need to empower our colleges and universities, our faculty and staff, to be innovative and entrepreneurial. We need to partner in new ways. . . .

We will have succeeded when every economic development initiative across Minnesota involves at least one of our colleges or universities; when all businesses and communities turn to us first for solutions to pressing problems; and when graduates return to us in greater numbers for the cutting-edge skills to remain at the top of their professions.

We will declare victory when every Minnesotan has the ability to attend – and graduate from – one of our colleges or universities, and when higher education is within reach of all families. And we’ll celebrate when the Minnesota economy returns us to prosperity. Given this defining moment in our state’s history, consider the ideas I’ve shared with you today as a call to action. For you, our board, to help us set the right priorities. For our presidents to lead new, innovative of serving students and their communities, and for faculty and staff to deliver both an extraordinary education and extraordinary ideas to our partners. Minnesota is counting on us.

Eric Kaler’s inaugural speech on September 22, 2011 (See full text here.)

Eric Kaler

I am committed to: Re-invigorating how we teach and learn, and ensuring an exceptional undergraduate experience, a rigorous graduate environment, and a world-class research enterprise;
I am committed to: Re-imagining how we operate and function;
I am committed to: Championing the value of this University to the people of this state;
I am committed to: Strengthening our business, community and philanthropic partnerships;
I am committed to: Unleashing an entrepreneurial spirit amongst all of us, reaching globally even as we serve and engage our local communities;
I am committed to: Leading a University that understands that diversity is critical to achieving excellence.

Together, we can re-invent the land-grant vision of the nineteenth century to meet the global needs of the twenty-first century. And together, we can place the University of Minnesota among the group of the best public research universities in this nation . . .

Let me turn now to public engagement, another activity critical to our mission. We always will respond to the changing needs of our communities, state and world by sharing our expertise, knowledge, resources and discoveries. We have a tradition of outreach to our rural communities that we will not abandon. Not only because we’re so directed by the Morrill Act of 1862, and not only because we continue to advance our legacy of agricultural innovation and feeding the world. No, we won’t abandon these roots because of students like Kenny Deutz.

Kenny grew up on his family’s farm near Marshall, Minnesota, tending crops and milking cows. Since he was a little boy he has wanted to be a veterinarian. Kenny came to the University of Minnesota to achieve that goal. A few months ago, right after his freshman year, Kenny was accepted into VetFast, an accelerated veterinarian degree program. Across the nation, there’s an acute shortage of large animal veterinarians. As the only veterinary college in the state, the University of Minnesota has an obligation to help meet this shortage.

VetFast students receive their bachelor of science and doctor of veterinary medicine degrees in seven years instead of eight. It saves a year’s tuition. It’s good for the economy. It allows young people like Kenny to give back to his community, and live the dream he first had in kindergarten.

While we’re committed to our roots, the fact is the world keeps getting smaller and, as Minnesotan Thomas Friedman says, flatter. We must rethink our mission of public engagement for the twenty-first century and create new pathways for engagement locally, nationally and globally….

We also need to look externally. We must better define our partnership with the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system and more clearly articulate the public value and distinctive role of each institution, while working together as much as possible to deliver higher education in Minnesota as cost-effectively as possible . . .

Any great team, organization, or University, must actively pursue diversity. In our faculty … among our staff … and within our student body. I can think of no community, no challenge, no classroom that is not enhanced by diversity … of thought, of background, of language, of values, of religion, of gender, of ways of knowing.

Diversity pushes us to challenge our assumptions. It sparks our creativity, and it enables a richer and, frankly, more interesting life. A student who, by accident or by plan, has a narrow and homogeneous education will be spectacularly ill-equipped to succeed in a modern life.

Diversity is also an economic and civic imperative. By 2035 almost half of the citizens in the Twin Cities metro area will be people of color. Yet, today, our state has one of the nation’s largest achievement gaps between students of color and white students from kindergarten to twelfth grade, and that extends to a gap in higher education. We all bear responsibility. If we are to prosper in the future as a state, it is incumbent upon all of us to close this achievement gap. I will partner with our K-12 leaders and others and bring University expertise and resources to reach this goal. Education is the path to a better life. It always has been.

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