Full transcript and video of President Kaler's State of the University address

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Good afternoon.

These are turbulent and, for some in our community, frightening times. It seems as if so much of what we stand for as a public land-grant University is under attack.

We know of the vile and despicable hate actions that have taken place on our campus over the past year, most recently against our Jewish community, before that our Muslim students and hateful acts towards women, and others. We know that political speech has been vandalized and shouted down —political speech along the vast ideological spectrum — and limiting free speech is wrong and unacceptable anywhere, but especially in our academic setting. We know that recent events have been painful and unfair to our students, faculty and staff from around the world as immigrants and undocumented students are under attack.

Transgender students and members of our GLBTQ community are being further marginalized. And as a scientist and this University’s president, I am also deeply disturbed by the attacks on our community members and attacks on facts.

It is during such challenging times that the University of Minnesota can and must shine.

This is a moment of great uncertainty for many people in many ways but I know of one indisputable certainty, and that is the deep and broad impact our University has on all 87 counties of our state and just about every one of our more than 5 million citizens. A way to enhance that impact is to stay true to our core values and ensure our actions reflect them. This afternoon, I want to talk with you about those values, make it clear where I stand, and ask you to join me in embracing them in the days and months to come.                          

First, thank you all for being here today. I do want to acknowledge that we have many members of our Board of Regents with us today. Please welcome Regents Tom Anderson, Linda Cohen, Michael Hsu, Peggy Lucas, David McMillan and Patricia Simmons. Regents Rick Beeson, Chair Dean Johnson, Abdul Omari, and Darrin Rosha couldn’t join us, but I’m sure are with us in spirit or on line. And I want to welcome two new Regents, Ken Powell and Steve Sviggum, who just started last week. Colleagues on our system campuses have gathered to watch this, so hello to Crookston, Duluth, Morris and Rochester, and to our outstanding chancellors there.

I’m happy to see many members of my Senior Leadership Team and Deans from the Twin Cities campus. We also have the President of the Minnesota Student Association, Abeer Syedah . . . and I’ll tell you a little more about her later ... And President Nicholas Goldsmith of the Council of Graduate Students President, President Max Hall of the Professional Student Government and Trish Palermo, Chair of our Student Senate. Thank you all.

The U's statewide impact

Before there was a state of Minnesota there was a University of Minnesota. Our first president, William Watts Folwell, in his inaugural address emphasized that the University was essential for — quote — the “well-being” of the state, and he was right. As time passed, the partnership between the citizens of Minnesota  — all of our citizens — strengthened and became indivisible. It was built on a foundation as broad as the shoulders of Minnesota’s miners and farmers and as deep as the principles that have guided Minnesota exceptionalism — a strong commitment to public education, extraordinary health care, and understanding of the value of investment for the public good.

Along the way, system campuses took hold, research and outreach centers became beachheads for statewide public engagement, and Extension made an impact in all of our counties. Alumni populated every corner of the state, starting businesses, treating patients, teaching students, promoting the arts, running for office, and growing the food to feed our state and the world. Inventions emerged, triggering the creation or the renewal of entire industries in Minnesota, such as medical devices industry, health care, mining, software, and water quality enterprises.

People across the state who never stepped on any of our campuses cheered for our sports teams, looked to us for breakthrough cures and treatments, and longed for their children to be accepted as students here.

I know after six years on this job, we are not merely the University OF Minnesota. This University IS Minnesota.

And right now — and it feels like more than ever — the state and its people have their eyes on us. That gaze results from all the pressing issues that are upon us and them. In many more ways than not, we can be proud of all we do and of what we stand for.

From our commitment to research and finding solutions to Minnesota’s biggest problems …

To our support for inquiry of all kinds and free speech . . .

To our empathy for the immigrants and undocumented students on our campuses …

To our commitment to equity for our GLBTQ community …

To our embrace of the liberal arts …

And to our stand for respect and inclusion.

We’re proud of our “Driving Tomorrow” Twin Cities campus strategic plan that is a remarkable model of interdisciplinary teaching and research, and that is living up to its promise for our students and our faculty. We’re proud of our affordable excellence and the way, over the past five years, we’ve kept a lid on tuition and reduced debt for our Minnesota resident undergraduates. While rising tuition captures headlines, our average increase system-wide has been less than 1 percent per year for Minnesota residents.

Proud of the important work going on right now to develop a comprehensive system-wide strategic plan to better serve the state, better leverage the strengths of all of our campuses, and to vigorously fulfill our 21st Century land-grant mission.

We’re proud of all the research our faculty conducts, from aiding in pork production to discovering new ways to diagnose autism in infants to informing public policy on housing, the justice system, and the achievement gap, to the bioengineering that gives hope to amputees and spinal cord patients.  

In the end, for most things and on most days, the state looks to us because, simply put, the University of Minnesota is indispensable. We give this state a true sense of all the possibilities for it and its future.

That scrutiny we receive and the hope we inspire calls on us to reaffirm our core values.

Bertrand Russell and myths

So, what guides us? How can we continue to lead the state of Minnesota?

Now, I don’t usually quote others, but this from the British philosopher and scholar Bertrand Russell is as relevant today as it was 100 years ago. Here’s what Russell said … and pardon the 19th century gender specificity:

"If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and — unless the evidence is overwhelming — he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence.”

Then, Russell added: “The origin of myths is explained in this way.”

The University of Minnesota does not operate on myths. We must not. We are an institution that thrives on, and relentlessly pursues, the truth. We are dedicated to the facts and the thoughtful interpretation of them. 

Along with a set of shared facts, we must also come together around a reservoir of empathy, of humility, and of high aspirations. We must care about each other.

Combined, that embrace of facts and our willingness to share our humanity with each other forms the basis of our core values. Those values help to give us what a great University must have: a sense of real possibility for the future.

You should know that my thoughts and feelings today are not only driven by the chaotic news in the headlines, or the troubling concerns I hear from many on our campuses every day. They’re drawn by something more personal and life changing. Two months ago, I became a grandfather for the first time. Her name is Ophelia and she is brilliant and beautiful. If you haven’t experienced it, there’s nothing like holding a 9-pound bundle of vulnerability in your arms, looking in her eyes, and imagining all the possibilities for her.

It is our responsibility to lead as a University to help to build a community and state that is safe, welcoming and affords equal opportunities to every child, whether they have been held in their grandfather's arms or not.             

Let me come back to Bertrand Russell’s words and the current attacks on facts and science. Allow me to put on my chemical engineer hat for a moment.

It is an unavoidable fact of chemistry that the combustion of a hydrocarbon in air leads to the production of carbon dioxide. It is an unavoidable fact that carbon dioxide is a green house gas. Greenhouse gases include water vapor, ozone, carbon dioxide, and methane and they capture outgoing infrared radiation from the planet, thereby warming the planet. Consequently, increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere will cause changes in the convective patterns in the atmosphere, and the climate we experience will change.

It is an unavoidable fact that if the mean temperature of the oceans increases, the water level will rise. This is because the coefficient of thermal expansion for water is positive.  

And it is an unavoidable fact that many coastal regions are not far above the current average sea level and therefore are vulnerable to flooding and ultimately inundation. That’s even before the ice melts.  

So why in the world would we not plan for this? We don’t plan because some powerful voices call climate change or global warming a hoax and well-organized groups with great financial and political power call it a scam.

And someone once Tweeted, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”  

In fact, climate change and what is known as global warming was studied by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group created by the United Nations including thousands of scientists from over 100 countries. You might remember that for their work they shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. And evidence shows the climate IS changing.

So here we are back to Bertrand Russell’s words — we are an institution that is dedicated to the honoring of facts and science, not myths.

We are also dedicated to the thoughtful, unbiased scrutiny of culture and values. There can be no wavering. If our ability to conduct our research at this University is hindered by those with self interest or political agendas, we must fight that. We are committed to academic freedom and to the facts.

Our ethos is this: If our studies and research are legal and ethical, we will follow science and inquiry where it leads us. That is at our core. 

Free speech

Another core value is free speech.We do a lot to ensure diversity and equity on our campuses and about improving our campus climates, as we should. It’s a priority. To me, diversity also applies to an openness to ideas and to the freedom to use words to express opinions.

Our policy and traditions are clear. In all of its activities, our University strives to sustain an open exchange of ideas in an environment that embodies the values I just discussed, along with the values of responsibility, integrity, and cooperation. In that open exchange of ideas, we must promote an atmosphere of mutual respect, free from racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice and intolerance. But it’s not so simple.

There is a lot of shouting in our nation, our state and on our five campuses these days. Disagreement is essential in democracy and in the academy. Different people view the world differently. We’re allowed to do that. I would like to see us get away from constantly questioning people’s motives or labeling them simply because they ask questions. Asking questions is a hallmark of education.

There also seems to be a new standard that political speech or posters that express a different point of view from our own are de facto hate speech, or somehow shouldn’t be allowed. It’s a standard that says if anyone is offended, then those words are not permitted. Those aren’t the values of this nation or this University. There are wide points of view on our campuses and in this state that we all must respect.

We absolutely cannot condone a chilling of conversation. I know that some people on our campuses are fearful of saying how they feel or think, and fearful of being attacked for simply expressing themselves. That includes our Republican and conservative colleagues, peers and students, who, I’ve been told, some times feel afraid to speak their minds in our environment. That’s wrong.

If we don’t create an accepting and respectful atmosphere here in this setting of intellectual vitality, who will? Free speech is a core value, and we can’t chip away at it.

No to hate

At the same time, we surely can't stand for hateful words or actions. There have been too many of them at this University recently, and it angers and saddens me. It provides an ugly reflection on our University.

The recent poster of a Swastika on campus calling for — quote — “global white supremacy” was disgusting. The vandalism last fall of our Muslim Student Association board on the Washington Avenue Bridge was vicious. Other incidents of hate that have occurred are beyond disappointing. We have worked hard on Campus Climate issues throughout my tenure, and that will continue to be a priority.

I’m pleased with the way our Bias Response and Referral Network on the Twin Cities campus has developed. I know there were early concerns around the Network being the thought police or the word police. It’s not that. Its guidelines are clear: Bias response cannot be an infringement on free speech.

Our Bias Response and Referral Network was recently praised by an independent group for being a national model and for allowing free speech protections in its procedures. But we need the Network as a place for all of us to go when we experience, see or hear biased behavior. We need to promote a culture that honors free speech while discouraging hateful words.

Sadly, we can’t escape the climate of our times and of our nation, but — as we have — we must denounce hate at every turn and the bias, prejudice and discrimination that fuels hate.That applies to gender identities of our students, faculty and staff.

I’m proud that we have been open and responsive in our support of transgender and gender nonconforming students, faculty, and staff. And now, the Gender and Sexuality Center for Queer and Trans Life and the Transgender Commission are working with the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action to develop policies system-wide. We must ensure that our policies and practices make everyone feel welcomed on our all of our campuses. With all that we’re doing on many fronts, the fact is, we still have large groups of our students who feel vulnerable, marginalized and, even, unwanted.

We all have work to do — and I surely can’t do it alone — but, make no mistake, inclusion is another core value, and one way we can lead our state.

Immigrants, refugees and Dreamers

We also have a responsibility to our students who come to us on all of our campuses from around the world.

We are a global university, with students from more than 135 nations, with a remarkable number of faculty from many countries, and with a history of sending our own students aboard, of being honored with Fulbright scholars, and with supplying the Peace Corps with volunteers. Globalism is a part of us. That’s why the recent executive order on immigrants and concerns about the future of undocumented students has been so troubling, frightening and complex for so many of our students, faculty and staff.

I want to thank our Global Programs and Strategy Alliance and our International Student and Scholar Services office for all the work and care they’ve been providing to our immigrant and international community during this period of great uncertainty. Right now, we particularly want to take action that reflects our priorities in making our immigrant students and scholars, along with those who may be undocumented or Dreamers, feel welcomed and safe.

I’m pleased to announce today we are creating a dedicated service that, for now, I’m calling the Immigration Resource Center. It’s a collaborative effort with many Twin Cities campus and system-wide partners, including our Global Programs and Strategy Alliance, the Office for Equity and Diversity, the Office for Student Affairs, University Relations, Office of Human Resources and the Provost's Office. The Provost and I are committed to ensuring that all who are affected by any immigration policy changes will have a clear and accessible path to resources and support, and to get their questions answered in a timely fashion. We will also provide outreach to the greater University community on issues around immigration, DACA, and diversity. The Provost and I are committed to identifying resources, including a dedicated website and reallocating staff and funding as needed, to support this important work. Look for further announcements soon as we work urgently to get this team in place.  

You may also know that our Law School recently received the largest gift in its history — $25 million — to help endow our James H. Binger Center for New Americans, which is, without doubt, one of the nation’s best immigration law clinics. We are assisting many people in our broader communities with our Center. That gift is an extraordinary example of the power of philanthropy and how a compassionate donor, like the Robina Foundation, can make a real difference in the lives of Minnesotans with the University as its partner.

On this critical immigration issue, our research and community engagement work is also informing our state policy makers, teachers, students and citizens. It was a recent study, commissioned by our University Office for Economic Development and led by Humphrey School researcher Ryan Allen, that helped to frame the fact-based state-wide conversation about the important role that immigrants and refugees play in Minnesota’s economy. It was embraced by policy makers across the political and economic spectrum. Our University Libraries and our Immigration History Research Center helped develop an immigration syllabus for historians, students and the public across the nation.

Of course, there are real stories of our colleagues and students that put human faces on the research, legalisms and politics of what’s going on. For me, for instance, during my years of teaching, about a quarter of all my Ph.D. students were from all around the world, including from Iran and Mexico. They came here — the best and brightest of their nations — to learn and make their contributions to science and engineering in the United States. Each one is now contributing to our economy. I guarantee you none poses a risk to our country’s security. Like those Ph.D. students I had the honor to advise, we must ensure that our students, faculty and staff at this University are safe and treated with respect and dignity.

Helping the state to value the contributions of immigrants and undocumented students or neighbors is a job for all of us. To University of Minnesota students who are Dreamers and others under the DACA program, we support you and embrace you. And for all of us, I urge you to reach out to immigrants in your classes or at your work places on our campuses, in your off-campus activities. Many of our colleagues and students from around the world are fearful and feeling socially isolated. Understanding, support and kindness goes a long way.

Sexual assault and harassment

The values of respect and safety are no more important than when we address issues of sexual misconduct. Recently, our Twin Cities campus — like too many across the nation — has been at the center of sexual assault news and conversation because of the reported behavior of some of our students and faculty. When responding to such incidents we must be guided by our values, and we must take actions that express our priorities.

While the University has a strong and comprehensive approach to prevent and respond to sexual misconduct — with the guidance of our nation-leading Aurora Center —there is much more we can do and need to do, particularly in terms of education, training and advocacy. Earlier this year, we convened an ad hoc working group to undertake a high-level assessment of our education around and response to sexual assault, and to recommend immediate actions the University could take to further prevent sexual misconduct on the Twin Cities campus. There is a parallel track of work that is ongoing to improve the relationship between law enforcement agencies — our campus police, the Minneapolis police and Hennepin County’s sheriff’s office  — and campus resources such as the Aurora Center and the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action.

Earlier this week, I received recommendations from the group and I will immediately be asking the appropriate units to implement them. They include …

One, mandatory training for faculty and staff … Not everyone will like this, but the time has come. A resolution is moving through faculty governance supporting such training and we will consult broadly in implementing this recommendation.

Two, enhanced training and additional education for students after their first year …  

Three, a sustained public health and public awareness campaign …

Four, creating a President’s Advisory Committee on Sexual Assault that will regularly report to me ...

And, five, developing metrics to evaluate and measure our  sexual assault and misconduct prevention, education, advocacy and awareness efforts on campus, including conducting a campus climate survey every three years.  

We’ll engage both faculty and students in implementing these recommendations. We all know that even with these kind of actions, we will not eliminate sexual misconduct on campus. Unfortunately, attitudes and behaviors that underlie violence against women are deeply ingrained in our culture. Some students, faculty and staff may come into our community with belief systems that will be difficult to change. But what we can do, is stand firm on our values and effectively articulate the behaviors we expect and the culture we want to create.

Liberal arts

To confront all of these pressing issues and to take actions that improve our community, requires the ability to synthesize opinions, clearly state our positions, understand psychology, economics, history, art … and make compromises. I’m talking about the value of the liberal arts, and the humanities and social sciences. They are central to who we are as a University.

A medical school professor said the other day that epidemics like HIV/AIDS and cancer won’t destroy the human race, but hatred, misunderstanding and failure to communicate clearly will.

We have strong and longstanding liberal education requirements for undergraduates on the Twin Cities campus and they have served us well. But in light of our “Driving Tomorrow” Strategic Plan and its interdisciplinary Grand Challenges courses, we are embarking on a reassessment of our liberal education requirements. Of course, the University of Minnesota, Morris, under new Chancellor Michelle Behr remains a distinct nationally-ranked public liberal arts college that is a true jewel of our system and the state.

Our Twin Cities College of Liberal Arts, under Dean Coleman, has been undergoing some transformation. Some of it is to address the real concerns of students and their families about career preparation opportunities. But, to me, active citizenship, ethical reasoning, clear writing, an understanding of history and different cultures, leadership and teamwork are not only so-called commodities for employers.They are knowledge that we all need to address the issues facing us today: free speech, an ability to navigate diverse environments, a welcoming campus climate, and respect for each other. They also help us to better understand the human condition, which is critical in these trying times.

To be sure, our commitment to the liberal arts today and into the future — on all of our campuses — is a core value of this University.

Students first  

There’s one final core value I want to close on. It is, perhaps, the most central, the most caring and the most expected value: That’s our devotion to our students, to their well-being, their development and their preparation for this ever-changing and constantly challenging world. In all we do for our state, our students come first. Their success is essential to the success of the state.

And we must keep our promises to them and their families, not only through affordable excellence, but through the growing number of grand challenges courses, the advent of our new B.A./M.D. pipeline, and the addition of ag education on our Crookston campus, among others. We must keep our promise to prepare them for this constantly changing world. There are the thousands of success stories, 15,000 every year earning their degrees, 67,000 go to class every day.

But I want to tell you just about one, our MSA President Abeer Syedah, who I introduced to you earlier this afternoon. No student I’ve met here over the past six years has been more passionate, more driven and, yes, sometimes more challenging, than Abeer. But she is a leader and this University is proud to have offered her the pathway to build those skills.

Six weeks ago at the annual breakfast to kick off our legislative advocacy program, Abeer spoke and she inspired everyone, including me.

That morning, Abeer said, in part: “I look nothing like the U of M. I’m a little brown immigrant girl who doesn’t like sports, has never been in Greek Life, who does not think in English, who is a Pell Grant recipient, whose parents couldn’t help her with FAFSA, who is studying sociology and politics and gender, and still doesn’t totally know The Rouser by heart.”

She went on to say: “There are decision makers here and around this state who don’t see that as the U of M. And that’s exactly the problem. Because I am the University of Minnesota ... I am so profoundly a member of the Gopher community. I came to campus and found space, community, and opportunity. I began to see a future here. I began to see a career here. I began to envision MY  life in Minnesota for the first time.”                            

Then, Abeer finished this way. “When our tuition is low, when our inclusion is high, when our accessibility is great, and when our priorities are straight: THAT is when students succeed. That’s how we make Minnesota the envy of this country.”

I couldn’t have said that better myself!

It’s because of students like Abeer that all of us must work every day to ensure we abide by and live by our University’s core values.

Freedom of speech.

A commitment to facts, science and inquiry.

Inclusion and respect for all, including our trans and GLBTQ community.

A global perspective that respects immigrants, refugees and Dreamers.

A condemnation of hate and a promotion of kindness.

Standing firm for a culture that prevents sexual assault.

An interdisciplinary partnership with our elected officials that brings our remarkable strengths to the state of Minnesota’s long-term needs.

Always, always, always, putting our students first.

These core values can guide us in the days to come.

These uncertain times demand it . . .

Our extraordinary students, faculty and staff deserve it, and . . .

The continued greatness of our University of Minnesota depends on it.  

Thank you.