Investments, Internationalism and Innovation: President's Report to the Board of Regents

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The 2017 legislative session has ended — sort of!! — and, in many ways, Governor Dayton and state lawmakers demonstrated once again their commitment to our University, to our students, and, most importantly, to the future of our state's 21st century workforce. For that, I am very thankful.

To be sure, we didn't get all that we needed and sought for core mission funding, and frankly — as we saw yesterday in the presentation and conversation about our FY 2018 Operating Budget — that is already having ramifications for potential tuition increases. As the weeks go on — and as we consult fully with all key stakeholders — we also will be looking at the sorts of budget cuts we need to make in light of the Legislature’s funding this past session.

There was some especially good news, though, through the bonding bill in critical infrastructure projects that our University and the state need. It was the second-highest bonding commitment — that is, the second largest state investment in University infrastructure — in more than two decades. That is a strong statement of support. For one, we fought hard for two sessions for a new Health Sciences Education Center (HSEC) 
 to replace 40-year-old facilities in our Academic Health Center.

Just think how much medicine, nursing, pharmacy, public health, veterinary medicine, and dentistry have changed since the 1970s. That's why we need this interdisciplinary-focused learning center for our health care disciplines. It will serve as a cornerstone in the rejuvenation of our Medical School, which is a priority of mine and of yours. State leaders also decided to invest in the much-needed Chemistry and Advanced Materials Science Building 
at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Regent McMillan. This will help us respond to the spiking demand among our students for STEM education and a need of Northeast Minnesota employers for highly qualified talent. And, as we remain a key driver of science and innovation around food and our environment, I was pleased that we received funding for a new Plant Growth Research Facility on our St. Paul campus. That has been on our bonding list since 2014.

The next time we talk about these important new gems of our University will be either at their ground-breaking or ribbon cutting, and I look forward to that!

Yes, on the operating budget front, our core request fell short. Still, we did receive slightly more from the Governor and Legislature than in the current biennium. Thankfully, the state's investment in core needs did include: 

  • $14 million for our Family Medicine Residency program,
  • $8 million for state-wide cancer clinical trials as part of MnDRIVE, and
  • $4 million for the Natural Resources Research Institute at UMD, which accelerate innovation and economic development in key areas such as minerals, mining and water, energy and forest products. 

What’s clear is this: we must continue to be an excellent and nationally-ranked — and, in many cases, globally-ranked — public research university. 
And we must continue to enhance our system-wide vision and approach. That excellence attracts world-class faculty and researchers and the best and brightest of Minnesota’s and the nation’s students. It means great economic and cultural impact across our state.

In the end, it is our students who are the reason we work so closely to partner with the Governor and legislators to keep the University strong. 

I do want to thank our Government Relations team — led by Matt Kramer and JD Burton — for their extraordinary work during this session. And I want to send a special thank you to our Government Relations’ health sciences leader — Christine Kiel — who has helped us navigate through many, many tricky policy issues and who, along with many others in the AHC, got us to the finish line on the Health Sciences Education Center. There are some who are suggesting we call the Health Sciences Center “The Christine Kiel Building,” but I’m not too sure about that! Christine, thank you very much, and good luck in your future endeavors at the Medical School.

I also want to thank the, literally, thousands of University alumni who advocated for us. You made a difference. 

And, Regents, thank you for your hard work during the session.

Iceland, China, a global vision                                     

Our partnership with the State of Minnesota is fundamental to our success. But we also have countless partnerships that keep us strong, that allow us to share our resources and expertise, and that elevate our reputation across the nation and the world. For example, I returned last week from a three-day visit to Iceland, where we have a remarkably large number of alumni and a very strong partnership with that nation’s premier institution of higher education, the University of Iceland. I was there to celebrate our 35-year-long academic partnership with the University — and it now extends from our School of Nursing to CEHD to CSE to our Institute on the Environment.

With key student and faculty opportunities in mind — and always seeking innovative programmatic advances — I’ll be joining CSE Dean Sam Mukasa later this month on a brief trip to China to sign a ground-breaking partnership agreement with the Chinese University of Hong Kong at Shenzhen. This is a unique shared Hong Kong-mainland university and we will be entering into a new 3-2 program, with Chinese University of Hong Kong — with students studying three years there and two years on our Twin Cities campus en route to earning dual degrees from our two institutions in areas from computer science to math to electrical engineering.  Our faculty will be cross-listed as faculty at CUHK, too, and will be able to receive research funding from Chinese sources. It’s a great opportunity for them. AND, our faculty’s salaries — while jointly working in China — will be fully paid by the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

The point is this: in a highly competitive global market for top students and top scholars — thanks to our Global Programs office — we’re fully engaged and always seeking new opportunities and creative academic partnerships.

Medical device breakthrough 

Speaking of innovation, it is not bragging, but a historical fact, that we — with the invention of the external, battery-operated heart pacemaker on our Twin Cities campus — can claim to be the birthplace of the medical device industry that now employs about 35,000 people in Minnesota. Sixty years after Earl Bakken’s invention, we’re still at it, and here’s an example.  

Our interdisciplinary Medical Devices Center has, for the past nine years, hosted a small cohort of what it calls “Innovation Fellows,” all with the goal of creating new products for the public’s health.This week, for the first time, one of our products — a device to help patients recovering from a jaw fracture — was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. That is an arduous and exhaustive a process that is.

This is a breakthrough achievement for our Office for Technology Commercialization, our College of Science and Engineering, our Office of the Vice President for Research, our Academic Health Center, and our Innovation Fellows program. Such inventions fuel Minnesota’s economy and prosperity, and demonstrate how much every day this University proudly remains the engine of Minnesota’s innovation culture. With that, Mr. Chair and members of the Board, I conclude my report.