President's report to Board of Regents: Commencements and an important initiative to prevent sexual misconduct

Friday, May 12, 2017

As you know, it’s commencement season, a universally optimistic time of year, and I certainly felt that last weekend as I shared with graduates and their families and friends two of our 30 commencement exercises for the Class of 2017.

With Regent Cohen, I spoke Friday to the 221 graduates of our Medical School.

As I congratulated our new physicians, I did note that it was my last opportunity to speak to them without a co-pay … and they all seemed to agree. 

We know our Academic Health Center and Medical School have faced their challenges, but this commencement in a packed Northrop was all about opportunity . . . About how we at the U help to prepare the next generation of Minnesota’s health care workforce … And about how these new physicians will go forward with compassion and a patient-centered perspective because of the interprofessional training they’ve received here.

The next day, I flew to Crookston, and, again, I saw another aspect of our University’s diversity ... this time on a campus known for its agricultural and on-line emphases, and its deep impact on its community and region. There, with Regent Anderson, we celebrated the 50th commencement since UMC became part of our University of Minnesota system.

And here’s a statistic that is so critically important to me and, I know, to you.

More than 40 percent of our UMC graduates were the first in their family to attend — and now graduate from — college. They blazed a special trail, and we at this University were their partners. 
Thank you all for participating in one or more of our ceremonies during this busy season of celebrating achievement.

Speaking of achievement, minutes ago we recognized dozens of deserving winners of academic, service and athletic honors. But, from time to time, other awards come across my desk that go less celebrated. Over the course of the year, a couple stood out to me because of the teamwork necessary for the winners and because they demonstrate the wide-range of our land-grant mission. For instance, our four-member dairy cattle judging team from our Twin Cities campus placed first overall for the second year in a row in the national intercollegiate contest. I might add, our squad was victorious in Madison, Wisconsin, and ahead of their home team.

Another of our teams scored big, too. A group of 20 UMD mechanical and electrical engineering students won the Air Force Laboratory Challenge, developing a robotic “pack mule” that could help our military seize an airfield. They actually beat out competitors from West Point.

And then there’s our team in the Office for Technology Commercialization. For the second year in a row, the OTC Venture Center saw two of its startup companies gain national recognition by the National Council on Entrepreneurial Tech Transfer as the Best University Startups of 2017. Two of ours out of only 40 nation-wide. 

My point is simply this: we have students, faculty and staff who compete every day on a wide-range of fields of play … from judging cows to national defense to waste water. And we win.

Another area in which we are scoring big is as a global university. As you saw, we win Fulbrights and other international honors, and — to strengthen our international ties and reputation — later this month I will travel to Iceland to celebrate and build on our academic and alumni partnerships. We’ve been partners with the University of Iceland for more than 30 years now, especially through our School of Nursing.

President's Initiative to Prevent Sexual Misconduct

Let me turn now to a few important updates. One addresses what I’m calling the President’s Initiative to Prevent Sexual Misconduct. As you know, late last year I convened an ad hoc working group that undertook an assessment of our education around, and response to, sexual assault. The group’s recommendations — which I have accepted — will affect our entire Twin Cities campus community.

Earlier this week, I sent letters to a wide range of campus leaders charging them with key responsibilities as we move forward on this very important campaign. I also directed the Chancellors of our system campuses to come forward with similar programs that are appropriate to the needs of their campuses. Among the key pieces of the initiative is my desire to develop and require training around sexual misconduct issues for all faculty and staff.

And there are four other goals.

  • One, to enhance student education and engagement, especially beyond the first year . . . 
  • Second, to create a sustainable public health/public awareness campaign . . . 
  • Third, to establish a President’s Committee to Prevent Sexual Misconduct . . . 
  • And, finally, to develop metrics for evaluating our sexual assault and misconduct prevention, education, and advocacy and awareness activities on campus.

I have asked School of Public Health Dean John Finnegan to chair an advisory committee to help oversee the implementation of these recommendations because sexual misconduct — whether on our campuses or in the board rooms of corporations — is really one of the most critical public health problems we face.  We here at the University of Minnesota must work together as a community to address it, and I believe the President’s Initiative to Prevent Sexual Misconduct will put us on an important and necessary path to tackle this unacceptable epidemic.

Legislative update 

Later today you’ll hear a complete update from Senior Vice President Burnett and Vice President Kramer about the our legislative efforts. But, briefly, earlier this month, the Higher Education Conference Committee proposed $18.7 million in new state funding. That was nearly $130 million short of our request, or only about 13 percent of what this Board asked for. Governor Dayton is seeking more support for us as the session heads towards its final 10 days.

As you know, Mr. Chair and members of the Board, you unanimously approved a funding request for $147.2 million that encompasses not only our operating expense increases, but specific funding for vital research, education, and outreach initiatives. Much of our request involved new investments in Student Success — to improve graduation rates, for instance — and in our Core Mission — in order to keep a lid on tuition. 

This level of funding proposed right now by the Legislature will not allow us to achieve the success we seek. Simply put, it will mean that in the weeks to come we have to work together will have to make tough decisions that could cause students to pay more, research initiatives to be compromised, academic programs to be put at risk, and our contributions to Minnesota to be lessened.

As always, I remain hopeful that we will see changes in the legislative proposal. But, if the funding stands where it is right now, difficult decisions face us as we finalize our budget for Fiscal Year 2018.

On the federal front, we’ve been active, too. When Congress was working on the nation’s budget, more than 500 people from our University community contacted their members of Congress and President Trump with their stories of research and its impact.

That response from our research community helped convince Congress to make funding decisions so that important federally-funded research will go uninterrupted this fiscal year. I’d like to thank Senators Franken and Klobuchar and Representatives McCollum, Nolan, Paulsen, and Walz, who supported the budget bill. 

You should also know that late last month I took our story, issues, and concerns to U.S. Speaker Paul Ryan. Along with some other Big Ten presidents, I discussed federal research funding, regulatory reform, and student achievements and financial aid with the Speaker. 

Let me close on a more uplifting note than the budget. Since last this Board met, I traveled to Washington, D.C., to gather with alumni and donors at the spectacular new National Museum of African American History and Culture. I had the chance to speak about some remarkable alumni who were leaders in the civil rights movement, such as Roy Wilkins, our 1923 grad, who became the leader of the NAACP in 1955. And Whitney Young, who earned his Master’s Degree in 1947, and 13 years later became the leader of the National Urban League.

So, when I spoke to the more than 300 people who gathered at the African American museum, I remembered attending the College of Education and Human Development’s commencement Class of 2015 and honoring one particular graduate who epitomized the perseverance that we try to instill in our students. That was Bobby Bell, our Gophers football great, who grew up in the segregated South, and who came to our University in 1959 at the dawning of the beginning of diversity in intercollegiate athletics, and who went on to be named to two football Halls of Fame. But something was missing from his arc of achievement . . . And that was the final three courses he needed to complete his college degree. In 2015, a mere 56 years after he entered as a freshman, Mr. Bell earned his degree. 

I told that inspirational story at the museum last month, and Mr. Bell was there and he was touched, as was I.

Amid our challenges, let us not forget how this University changes, improves and affects the lives of our students and our state.