President Eric W. Kaler's legislative briefing remarks

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Greetings. What a great crowd! What a great army of maroon and gold advocates here and across the state. Even without my goggles, this looks to me like a winning formula. And welcome to all of you watching at home or at work. Thanks for joining us.

For you to travel here on a February evening, or to sit in front of your computer screen to watch our webcast when you could be doing something more important like watching Law & Order reruns, or the Big Ten Network-well, that's extraordinary.

So extraordinary that, before I forget, I want to make this offer: if you stick with us tonight, if you learn about our social media effort and complete all of the exciting activities we have planned, three of you will win a great prize. You will get to have lunch with my wife, Karen Kaler. I'm going to tag along, too, but Karen's far more interesting.

Now, many of you might have been able to tell from that video and this coat that I'm a chemical engineer by academic discipline. But tonight I'm going to turn from the natural sciences to that less exacting, but rough-and-tumble social science: political science. Of course, that's why we've all gathered physically and virtually tonight.

Just so you get a feel for the breadth, depth, and spirit of advocacy already in place, let me greet various groups and individuals who are joining us here. First of all, as University of Minnesota Alumni Association Chair Maureen Reed said, we have a record number of advocates here tonight.

I am honored. I am thankful. I am thrilled about the energy and real affection we have for our University.

Please, let me introduce to you my bosses, the hardest-working volunteers in the state-members of our Board of Regents. They are peppered around the room. Please join me in giving a warm round of applause for Regent and Chair Linda Cohen, Regent Steve Sviggum, and Regent David McMillan. Thank you for being advocates.

We have groups here. Oh, do we have groups. The College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS) Alumni Society is here. Where are you guys? The School of Public Health Alumni Society is here, too. They're the ones with the VERY clean and thoroughly washed hands. Please raise those hands to let us know where you are! Extension has almost 60 people here-sixty! They spent the entire day at the Capitol talking to legislators. They can give us some lessons on advocacy! Extension faculty and educators, where are you? And, finally, the Medical Alumni Society is watching this online, but right here in McNamara. Apparently, they're overlooking this room, sort of like doctors watching an operation!

We also have people represented from all of our statewide campuses. If you're affiliated with UMD or Crookston, Morris or Rochester, can you let us know?

Advocates all. We are Minnesota proud. Welcome all.

Earlier today I made my first appearance before a legislative committee, promoting our important Capital Request. Now, that was fun! Last week, I met with more than 100 legislators right here in this room as part of a great program organized by our Humphrey School of Public Affairs. And that WAS truly fun!

Here's why. I was given about two minutes-that's all-to tell all of those elected officials about the unique value of the University of Minnesota to the state, about why we deserve the funding we receive from the state. It was like a lightning round in a quiz show, or a two-minute drill at the end of a football game. I spoke fast. I had to in order to tell our story.

Here's what I told them:

  • We're the state's only research university, driving discoveries, cures, new products, scientific breakthroughs.
  • We generate $8.6 billion a year in state economic impact, and 70,000 jobs statewide.
  • For every dollar the state invests in us, we drive a return of $13.20 into the state economy.
  • We have the state's only vet, pharmacy, and dental colleges and produce 85 percent of the physicians.
  • We're a force in Greater Minnesota, with our campuses in Crookston, Duluth, Morris, and Rochester.
  • We are a hub for the arts in the region, and we've produced great writers, dancers, musicians and actors.
  • We have sports teams that win national titles and athletes consistently named to Academic All Big Ten and Academic All-America squads.
  • More than two-thirds of our students are Minnesotans who become the state's talent supply chain of the future.
  • We attract grad students from around the world to work with our world-renowned scholars.
  • We have Extension faculty and educators in every county, working with families, farmers and 4-H-ers.
  • We create startup companies, generate patents, and transfer technology to the marketplace, creating jobs.
  • We leading in the battle to close the K-12 achievement gap in Minnesota.
  • We have 500,000 alumni around the world who have great influence.


Then, as I was coming here tonight, I realized something about all that. Each of our attributes-and those are just a few-amounted to fewer than 140 characters when I wrote them down. One hundred and forty characters, of course, gets me all a-Twitter.

I will return to this social media topic in just a minute. But let me turn now to storytelling and its importance in our advocacy effort. Each of us has a story about how this University has affected our life-changed our life, really.

My University of Minnesota story is somewhat typical. I first came to the University of Minnesota in September of 1978. I was about to be 22 years old. I was about to be a graduate student in the best chemical engineering program in the world. I had a fellowship to support me, which was the only way this son of a working class family could go to graduate school.

That was my first encounter with the excellence of this University, and with the mission and public support that made it accessible to me. I studied under some of the world's leading experts in my topic area. They were teachers. They were mentors. They were inspirational figures. I received my Ph.D. here. I received a transformational experience here.

That was the University of Minnesota then, and in many ways, what it still is today. But those twin pillars of excellence and access at this University, those two foundational stones for the prosperity of Minnesota, have never been more at risk. Our state has been disinvesting, in an alarming way, in our University-disinvesting in this jewel, this force for culture, curiosity and creativity, of jobs and justice, of health sciences, veterinary medicine, and of national champions in Duluth!

That's why I am devoting this chapter of my life to the mission of this University, and to the future of our students. That's why each of our stories is a testament to why this University matters and why we need to aggressively communicate with our legislators and the governor about the importance of our capital request this session. That's why I'm so excited to see you all here tonight or have you watching at home.

This gathering tonight is more than about one year's request or a few months of rugged committee hearings. This gathering is about building a community of advocates who are committed to the long-term future and success of this great University.

I want to firmly lay that groundwork for that grand vision of our University:

  • So we're always part of the same national and global conversation as are other world-renowned institutions-Berkeley, Michigan, Virginia, and UCLA.
  • So we have one of the nation's and world's leading health sciences campuses.
  • So this University is excellent and accessible to every qualified Minnesota student no matter what her economic background.
  • So we can stem the increases in tuition and student debt.

Yes, we are the University OF Minnesota. But we need to tell everyone we know, everyone with influence that this University IS Minnesota.

Our future is driven by our history. Our history is filled with your stories. Let me tell you a few.

Take graduate student Abou Amara, who's about to get his master degree. Abou grew up-sadly-in that town known as Madison, Wisconsin. He came here to the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, attracted by all that the Twin Cities and this University has to offer. His years have changed the trajectory of his life.

What's happened? He's the president of our Graduate and Professional Student Association. He was just appointed to a U.S. Department of Education Rulemaking Committee on Student Loans. He'll be working this summer at the Northwest Area Foundation on its work with the African American Leadership Forum. Being at the U, he says, has made him believe that he can make a real difference in making the Twin Cities and world a better place to live. Abou, great story, thanks! Where are you?

And where is Kristin Eggerling? You know, she drove tonight all the way from Hallock, in the farthest northwest corner of the state-400 miles! Kristin works in Hallock with the University's Northwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership Board. That board partners with CFANS, Extension, our College of Design, and our Ag Experiment Station to work with local communities. Kristin drove here last year, too.

She's most passionate about the University's role and the Board's role in promoting local foods and connecting children and nature. In an email, Kristin wrote: "Our communities should be thankful for their connection to the University of Minnesota." Engagement, of course, is one of our missions. Kristin, thanks for coming tonight. Where are you?

Another long distance traveler is John Frydenlund. John is a 1973 grad of our Twin Cities campus, and a fervent believer that our athletics programs-if successful-can raise our academic profile, too. John, I agree with you.

But more importantly, John's story tells about the value of his years as a student here a few years back. He says the University turned him into a political activist and he's remained so for the past 40 years. He considers himself a conservative Republican and has been active in many Republican campaigns, but he says during his college years his favorite political science professors were Mulford Q. Sibley and Earl Craig, who were famously liberal. "But," John says, "I had very valuable interaction with them all. In fact, I think they enjoyed me because I argued with them."

Academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas is why we're here. John, please stand so we can thank you.

And then there's Liz Rammer's story. She's not a U grad, but is the chief operating officer of Life Science Alley, which is committed to business success in the life sciences. I've spoken to the group. They embrace our pioneering approach to sharing intellectual property and our stepped up technology transfer program.

In an email, Liz wrote: "Continuing to cut the U's already limited state funding is pennywise and pound foolish and does not send the right message to Minnesotans and the companies that have chosen to locate here." Liz, where are you? Thank you for your advocacy about our value. Thank you to Life Science Alley for helping us here to be driven to discover.

Now, let me turn to the nitty-gritty of our capital request. Recently, Governor Dayton announced his bonding bill, and he provided a figure far lower than we were seeking. I have spoken to the Governor about this. He was very helpful at the end of the 2011 session, restoring critical funding to help us keep a lid on the rate of increase of tuition. That was very important.

But our capital request this year is very much focused on fundamental facilities maintenance and improvements across the entire University of Minnesota system. It's something our campuses desperately need. Let me show you.

First, we are seeking $90 million in funds from the state's Higher Education Asset Preservations & Replacement fund, or what's known as "HEE-PER." Not very poetic, but VERY necessary! By law, these improvements must deal with code compliance, energy efficiency, repairs or renewals of buildings.

You know what this is like? These are the kinds of improvements that homeowners have to spend on the basics-periodically replacing your furnace, fixing your roof, and improving a house's energy efficiency.

For now, the Governor has only directed $20 million for our improvements, and that $70 million shortfall is a disappointment. This is funding that would be spread to our Crookston, Duluth, Morris, Rochester, and Twin Cities campuses. We're going to keep telling our story to the Governor and Legislature to provide our full request. I started telling that story today before the Senate Higher Education Committee.

We are also seeking to partner with the state in funding renovations to the Twin Cities Combined Heat and Power Plant and to Eddy Hall, the oldest building on our Twin Cities campus, to upgrade and modernize them. The Power Plant project can save us millions of dollars a year in energy costs. Eddy Hall is on the National Register of Historic Places. It must be preserved. And it will become one of the most thoughtful, innovative buildings on campus, with the sort of flexibility modern buildings need.

In addition, we are seeking funds from the state to improve our Itasca Biological Station near the headwaters of the great Mississippi River. It is filled with post-World War II buildings. Three ecosystems meet in one place at our Itasca labs. It's a special place to teach biology and the whole realm of environmental studies.

We are also eager to help build a much-needed American Indian Learning Resource Center at UMD, which is one of the nation's leading centers for Native American education. I was in Duluth just yesterday. There is strong support from the business community for the Resource Center. Duluth-area civic and business leaders are going to advocate for us.

Of course, we are very mindful of the financial constraints that our state faces, and the challenges that legislators and the Governor face to develop a balanced budget with so many needs in the state. But we are a great investment. As I said earlier, our return on investment is 13 to 1-that is, for every dollar the state invests in us, we produce $13.20 of economic impact back to the state.

At its core, this isn't just about steam plants, or fixing elevators, or repairing Sheetrock, or even a new building here or there. This is about preserving one of Minnesota's most precious and valuable assets: the U. The University of Minnesota truly matters to this state, nation and world. We need to tell our great stories. We must be maroon-and-gold advocates.

OK, now let's walk the talk. Now, it's time for action. It's time empower you to tell your University story in so many ways, on a host of different channels, familiar and unfamiliar. As an engineer, I know this: for every action in the 21st century, there are at least two things: a reaction and a Tweet.

And I also know there are many other channels through which to transmit our Support The U message-from Facebook to our own web site to the telephone to good, old-fashioned U.S. Mail.

But, those of you who Tweet know that there is great power in just 140 characters. I've been sending out Tweets since last fall at @PrezKaler. And now we have a new hashtag just for University of Minnesota advocacy. It is #UMNProud.

I'll be back to give you some further instructions about how we as a group will be advocating, but please give your undivided attention to Liz Giorgi, a member of our University Relations team and a leading social media expert. Liz is going to guide you through some very important advocacy exercises. And, remember, after Liz's presentation, I will provide more details about how to win a lunch with my wife Karen and me. Liz, please join us.