President’s Kaler's March 2014 Report to the Board of Regents

Friday, March 28, 2014

Thank you, Chair Beeson, members of the Board. Typically during these reports I bring you up to date on a wide-range of events and achievements, from athletics to zoology.

But today, because overwhelming evidence of our power and impact has been reported in just the last few weeks, I want to mostly focus on one topic. And that’s research.

Research illustrates our deep contributions to the state and to understanding in science, education, technology and cultural history, among many others. As Regents you know how important our role is as the state’s only comprehensive research university. That was brought home just yesterday during our tour of the Academic Health Center. But even I have been exhilarated and even exhausted these past few days by the onslaught of news made by our faculty, researchers and students, and for the recognition they’ve received on front pages from New York to Johannesburg, and on airwaves from London to St. Paul.

Let me start with this object in my hand, a smartphone.

I promise, I won’t check my emails! I bet you’ve all got one. With the help of a large grant from Google, our University of Minnesota computer scientists—including our top graduate students—are going to change the way you use that device.

Across campus in the basement of Walter Library, they are developing the capability to create 3D maps on smartphones and other devices. Before long, this software will, among other contributions, help blind people walk unhindered through a building. It’s 3D technology that grew from an earlier partnership, funded by NASA, to create navigational software for Mars landing vehicles.

This example alone demonstrates the impact of basic research. Public-private partnerships and federal support have long funded basic research in the United States. This research eventually drives all sorts of discoveries to become life-changing innovations for you, me and millions of others around the world. But, as you know, over the past few years, federal support for basic research has been significantly reduced. This decline comes as many other nations are raising their higher education research investments and, frankly, are becoming globally competitive in the process.

We must re-energize federal funding of research.

Despite that pull back by the federal government, I’m proud to say here at the University we have been aggressive in working with our industry partners, and, of course, with the state in our MnDRIVE partnership to keep basic research healthy.

Let me tell you about another exciting breakthrough. People have long wondered about the effects of early school start times for high school students. College of Education and Human Development research on this question recently made headlines nationwide. Our research demonstrated that schools with later start times produce better academic outcomes for students. As a result, even more districts are moving to later start times for high school students, benefitting countless students and families. but also, some data show, helping to close the educational achievement gap.

Now, let’s turn to an exciting interdisciplinary project.

A $9.5 million dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health was awarded to a team of researchers from both the Medical School AND the College of Science and Engineering to tackle pain associated with sickle cell disease. It’s the kind of research to find cures and treatments that has been a continuous theme in our health sciences history.

Researchers at UMD are advancing science and society, too.

When Regent McMillan builds a house some time soon, or fixes his kitchen, he will benefit from the work of scientists at UMD’s Natural Resources Research Institute. They recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation to create more environmentally positive wood products by strengthening weak wood species. The goal is to drive the increased use of renewable, sustainable, and carbon-storing material.

Turning to the liberal arts and the basic questions of what it means to be human, research matters, too. Nationally scholars are interested in understanding the so-called pre-modern period, between the 1500s and 1800s, to learn about topics such as human rights, economic opportunity, the environment, and political diversity from a non-European perspective.

Because our scholars in the College of Liberal Arts are leaders in that area, the Andrew Mellon Foundation has provided a large grant to support their work, bringing new perspectives to the understanding of history and culture and what it means for our students and us today.

Farther back yet—nearly 14 billion years ago—how was our universe created? We’ve got that one covered, too, right here on our Twin Cities campus. In a research partnership with the National Science Foundation, Harvard, Stanford and Cal Tech, our Physics and Astronomy Associate Professor Clement Pryke confirmed the imprint of gravitational waves on the cosmic microwave background. It’s the left over radiation one trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. Sounds complicated, and it is, but Pryke and his colleagues confirmed the so-called “inflation” after the Big Bang. And there is little more fundamentally mysterious than that.

Each of those examples demonstrates that in our labs and in our classrooms, we are saving lives and changing lives, exploding myths, and creating new ideas. Each of those projects proves the ingenuity, curiosity and world-class status of our faculty, staff and students. Our research places us in the conversation when people across the country wonder which universities are leading this nation in innovation. With that, our reputation grows.

The value of the degrees of our students and alumni increases. The best students—undergraduate and graduate—are attracted. Our research drives vast economic impact and prosperity. It provides deep cultural impact.

This has been a wonderful period to brag about University of Minnesota research.

Legislative news

Now, let me turn briefly to our activity at the Legislature. Our capital request is moving along. House Capital Investment Chair Alice Hausman’s bonding proposal devotes $224.2 million to the University and includes full funding for five of our six priority projects. It provides a strong boost for our students and Minnesota’s economy.

But Hausman’s bill provides only $40 million of the $100 million we’ve requested for HEAPR—the same amount as the Governor’s—and we’ll continue to advocate for additional renovation funding to meet current needs. We’re hearing that the House is likely to issue another bonding bill early next week. Whichever bill they decide to move forward, we will, of course, work closely with House leaders. We are still waiting for the Senate to respond to our capital request.

On another matter, yesterday several of our leaders provided updates to legislative committees about campus safety, Operational Excellence, and our ongoing performance metrics. I am pleased to report that their presentations were well received.

In particular, I’d like to note the significant amount of progress that we continue to make on our Operational Excellence initiatives, with the Enterprise Systems Upgrade Program providing the bedrock foundation for a wide variety of future improvements. In addition to the hard work that people from across the campus continue to pour into ESUP, we have already completed many of the Huron recommendations and are well on our way to completing others. I look forward to providing a more detailed update on this work to you in May.

As far as our legislatively requested Performance Metrics and “at risk” funding, we are making strong progress on every single one, and we are very firmly on track. It’s fair to say we truly have picked up the pace.


Finally, a week from today we will celebrate a historic milestone, the re-opening of Northrop.

The “new” Northrop is a true monument to interdisciplinary education, academic excellence and world-class performance. And it’s a model for a public-private-philanthropic project. I’ll be there with you as we launch a new and meaningful era of Northrop’s iconic role on our Twin Cities campus.

With that, Mr. Chair, I conclude my report.