At the African American History and Culture Museum: "A tribute to those who changed our nation ... and all of us."

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is a place that reminds us that painful, uncertain and turbulent times have a way of being transformed by remarkable acts of courage. And this museum is a tribute to those women and men who — through struggle and sacrifice — changed our nation and, in many ways, all of us.

Pioneers like Andrew Hilyer. Born a slave, he moved with his family to Minnesota and became the University of Minnesota’s first African-American graduate in 1882. He went on to become a lawyer, a U.S. Treasury Department official, a trustee of Howard University, and a leader of Washington’s African-American community.

Or a trailblazer like Roy Wilkins, who received his degree in sociology from our University in 1923, and became the leader of the NAACP in 1955, fighting tirelessly for voting rights, fair housing, and integrated schools. Or an activist like Whitney Young, who earned his Master’s Degree in Social Work from our University in 1947, and 13 years later became the leader of the National Urban League.

To this day, that’s what we do. We prepare leaders to make a difference.

Last fall, we received a record 49,000  applications for our incoming class of only 5,800, and admitted the most qualified, most diverse group of first-year students in our history. Twenty-two percent of our new students are students of color. But, frankly, we face significant challenges in recruiting African-American students. 

We need to do better, and we’re taking action to move forward, including working with public schools in the Twin Cities to reach down into the 8
th grade to identify and inspire high-achieving African-American boys and girls to aspire to be University students. We’re also leading efforts across the state of Minnesota to help close the unacceptable achievement and opportunity gaps between kids of color and their white classmates, and between low-income kids and their more privileged classmates. That’s critical to the future of the State of Minnesota and our University, so we can prepare the next generation of business, cultural, and civil rights leaders.

As we talk about the impact of the University of Minnesota, no story  reflects our values of perseverance, excellence and inspiration more than one about a member of our College of Education and Human Development’s graduating Class of 2015.

He grew up in the segregated South, when separate was not even close to equal, and racism knew no bounds. He came to our University in 1959 at the dawning of the beginning of diversity in intercollegiate athletics, and took our Gophers football team to something called the Rose Bowl — ever heard of that? He went on to win a Super Bowl, and become a member of the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame.

But something was missing from his arc of achievement . . . and that was the final three courses he needed to complete his college degree. With the help of our faculty and staff, he became a University of Minnesota graduate . . .  a mere 56 years after he entered as a freshman. And when I shook his hand at his commencement almost two years ago, it was one of the highlights of my time as president.

That inspirational alum is Bobby Bell, and he’s with us tonight, and it’s always great to see him. Bobby, please stand so everyone can congratulate you.

You know, the NCAA monitors our graduation rates, and four-year rates are the standard metrics. And our Gopher athletes’ rates are very good. But, now, thanks to Mr. Bell, I’m proud to say the University of Minnesota leads the Big Ten in that unique category: the 56-year graduation rate.

In closing, our mission at the University of Minnesota is much like the Smithsonian’s and this museum’s. We help to promote life-long learning. We capitalize on the richness inherent in diversity and intellectual freedom. We aim to inspire

It’s an honor to be here tonight in this museum with all of you. Thank you for joining us, and for your ongoing engagement and support of the University.