February 2017 Report to the Board of Regents: Thoughts on the Executive Order on immigrants and refugees, and more

Thursday, February 9, 2017

As I tell you often, when it comes down to it, we are in the people business. We affect lives every day in many ways.

Whether it’s the largest slice in the pie chart of our budget — in market compensation payroll and benefits for our 26,000 employees. Or it’s ensuring that our 67,000 students succeed and become leaders. Or it’s our public engagement with our metro neighbors or our Greater Minnesota partners. Our first priority is always the people who learn, work and live on our five campuses, research centers and Extension.

I came to even better understand that over the past few weeks.

Wednesday night, I met with members of our Muslim Student Association, the Al-Madinah [AHL-Mah-DEEN-ah] Cultural Center and our Somali Student Association — groups of young people facing special uncertainty these days — and they told me of their desire to help the University, particularly during orientation for new students, to provide education about our Muslim student population. And they want to help with issues surrounding cultural competency for employees and students.

I welcome that. It’s essential that — and I’m grateful for — our strong relationships with these important student organizations.
Of course, the Presidential executive order affecting citizens of seven predominantly Muslim nations has had a profound and direct impact on about 120 of our students on all of our campuses, many of whom are graduate students. And many others have been indirectly affected.

These students came to our University because they are the academic elite of their native countries and, before getting here, they underwent strict, arduous, and often time-consuming processes to get visas. 
The largest group of those affected is Iranian and, because the United States does not have an embassy in Teheran, these students had to leave their country — often multiple times — to file paperwork and be interviewed to come to our University for their life-changing opportunity.

We must also remember that a sizable number of our faculty and academic staff came years ago from those seven nations are now permanent residents or, in some cases, U.S. citizens, and have families and friends who are back in their home countries and have been adversely affected by the travel ban and the fear of what the future holds. 

Finally, of course, we have many Somali neighbors, students, and employees. Many of them have been waiting for years for other members of their families to be processed out of refugee camps around the world. Depending on how this executive order plays out in the courts — and it's headline news this morning — many of their hopes of being reunited with their families are on hold. 

And that's a shame.          

That’s why it’s fitting and timely that earlier this week it was announced that our Law School received the largest donation in its history, $25 million from the Robina Foundation. It is directed to help fund our Center For New Americans, which is one of the nation’s top law school immigration clinics. The Center prepares and trains future immigration lawyers for our community and others across the country. 

Robina’s generosity demonstrates the power of philanthropy and how it can translate into valuable ways to teach, to conduct research and to engage with our communities on some of our grand challenges. I’m very grateful to the Robina Foundation for this important gift.

Sexual assault and harassment                                            

There is another critical factor facing our campus and others around the country, and that’s sexual assault and harassment. It’s certainly been part of the local conversation recently because of events surrounding our Gophers football program. 

Let’s remember this. Our University has long been a leader in sexual assault prevention and support for survivors. Our Aurora Center recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, and its educational programming is looked to nationally as a model. Yet we can and must continue to improve. We have been asking leaders across our campus to assess our recent experiences and identify concrete actions we can take. We are engaging students in this important work. We are working on a series of initiatives — that we hope to unveil soon — around such things as enhanced education and training for faculty, staff, and students, and a public awareness campaign. We have an opportunity to make meaningful changes that will help ensure our students are safe. 

It is my hope that we as a community will rededicate ourselves to our University's core values. Those values include our commitment to a safe, respectful, and welcoming campus for all, particularly for women in our community.

Legislature, leadership 

On other matters, I appreciate the support this Board has given as we’ve begun to testify at the Legislature about our biennial budget request.Your presence at those hearings is very important. For now, we’ve appeared before the House and Senate Higher Ed committees providing overviews of the strength of our academic and research enterprises and insight into on our budgeting process. There’s much work to do in the weeks ahead and challenges that face us, and your help and support will be very important in our success with our partners at the Capitol, including the Governor. By the way — mark your calendars — our presentation of our biennial request to the Senate Higher Education committee has been tentatively set either for February 21 or February 28.

The transitions in my senior leadership team continue. Yesterday, the Faculty and Student Affairs Committee approved the appointment of our new Vice President for University and Government Relations, Matt Kramer, and I will seek the approval of this full board is now pending. Matt is known to many of your through his work in Governor Pawlenty’s administration and the Saint Paul Chamber of Commerce.
I’m excited about the energy, experience and insight he can bring to our lobbying and external communication efforts.

And we just formally introduced Chancellor Behr, who on Monday began her tenure as the leader of our Morris campus, jewel of our system. I know we all look forward to working with her in the days and years to come.

By the way, this does not increase our administrative head count. Matt will be replacing our former Government Relations leader Erin Dady and our former Communications Chief, Diana Harvey. So we are managing our headcount. 


Now, let me congratulate some important winners among us. First, our Twin Cities campus Dance Team, which took home its SEVENTH straight national championship last month in the Pom routine. The team has won first place in Division 1A Pom every year since the category was created in 2009. Congratulations to Coach Amanda Gaines and the entire team.

Secondly, my close personal friend, Goldy, won the National Mascot Championship at the same event in Orlando. It’s the third time Goldy’s been named national champ. Such success for our Twin Cities’ most endearing mascot is  enough to make my head spin.

And thirdly, our own Regent Linda Cohen was honored. Regent Cohen was named to the Minnesota School Boards Association’s 2017 All-State School Board, one of only seven such honorees across the state this year. Linda’s a long-time member of the Wayzata School Board and as the Superintendent of the Wayzata schools said — and I quote — “Each and every day, thousands of students are receiving a better education because of Linda’s dedicated efforts.”

The same can be said for Regent Cohen’s contributions to our University and our students over the past decade. 

Let me close with a congratulations to Regent Laura Brod.

Thank you for your service to the University of Minnesota.

And one more item, Mr. Chair. It’s with sadness that we note the passing of Bill Cooper, the leader of TCF Bank and a great friend of the University. He was instrumental in helping us develop our on-campus football stadium and TCF has been a strong partner. We extend our condolences to his family and the entire TCF community.