Remarks at the Equity and Diversity Breakfast

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Good morning …

We are a vast institution and a complex organization.

Nearly 70,000 students and more than 20,000 employees.

Our Twin Cities campus is the fourth most populous in the nation. The University is the state's fifth largest employer.

We teach everything — from courses entitled: Physiological Ecology of Plants in Natural and Managed Ecosystems … to one of my favorite courses, in our English Department.

Entitled: "Weird Books by Women."

How's that for diversity!!

Amid that enormous scope, we are, I believe, one curious and energetic University community … walking or biking or using our wheelchairs on our campus paths across the state, speaking many languages while sharing opinions about all sorts of things.

Lots of opinions.

And those opinions and views make up the sweet symphony and colorful mosaic of the University of Minnesota.

We are, despite our differences, one 'U.'

For this morning — and beyond — I hope the U stands not only for University, but for Unity.

Because we must be unified to meet our challenges.

We must be unified to make this a safe, diverse, equitable, accessible and respectful community.

I pledge to you: that is the kind of University of Minnesota I want to lead.

I am very pleased that the Chair of our Board of Regents, Linda Cohen, is here with us today. Please welcome her.

To the leaders of Ernst & Young who have joined us today … thank you very much for being the premier sponsor of this event for the second year in a row.

Thank you to the other 11 sponsors who you will find listed in the program. Thank you.

And thank you to each of you for being here today to show your support for the equity and diversity work we do on all of our campuses, and through Extension, and through our statewide centers, clinics and offices.

Thank you to the staff of the University's Office for Equity and Diversity for all the work you have done to make this fourth annual breakfast possible.

Congratulations to all of our award recipients today.

Let me talk about progress.

Over the years, we've made some progress here at the University, but it's been slow.

Frankly, the data is not all that impressive.

In the year 2000 — system-wide — about 11 percent of our students were students of color.

This fall, a decade later, we're at 14 percent.

And among our faculty, about 16 percent are people of color, also up 3 percentage points since 2005, but lagging behind many of our peer institutions.

I have heard people across the University ask this question: "Are we doing EVERYTHING we can to make people feel like this is the place they want to be?"

My answer is: If we're not, we need to get our creativity and ideas together to make it happen.

Why? Because I can think of no community, no challenge, no classroom that is not enhanced by diversity … of thought, of background, of language, of values, of religion, of gender, of sexual orientation, of ability, of ways we have of knowing.

Diversity pushes us to challenge our assumptions. It enables a richer and, frankly, more interesting life.

A student who, by accident or by plan, has a narrow and homogenous education will be spectacularly ill-equipped to succeed in a modern life.

That's because diversity is an asset to be cultivated — as well as an economic and civic imperative.

Why is it an imperative? Why is it more than just 'good to do'?

It is imperative because by 2035 more than one-third of the citizens in the Twin Cities metro area will be people of color or American Indians.

And one-quarter of all Minnesotans will be people of color.

Yet, today, our state has one of the nation's largest achievement gaps between students of color and white students from kindergarten to twelfth grade.

That gap extends to higher education.

Everywhere I go, I speak about this achievement gap, and everywhere I am —

  • Whether with scientists at 3M
  • With state leaders at the Governor's Job Summit
  • Or with stakeholders of our University's own Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center …

When I detail the sad statistics and massive drop-off in school achievement between white students and students of color, the room falls silent.

Everyone understands the implications for a state that is increasingly divided by educational achievement and, as a direct consequence, by the possibility for good jobs and a high quality of life.

As the state's only research university and as a center of innovation, we MUST bring University expertise and resources to this achievement gap crisis.

I am actively engaged in conversations with the state's education, government and business leaders about how to address this situation.

Quite simply, we have an emergency on our hands and we MUST respond.

The path to a better life is paved by education. It always has been, and will be even more so in the future.

While I believe our successes are not yet at the level they should be, the awards today prove there is much excellent equity and diversity work underway right now on all of our University of Minnesota campuses.

Plus, there is a deep commitment by all of our leaders on this front.

We are proud of our winners and their work.

But we all must do more. We WILL do more.

For example …

I am currently working with the Office for Equity and Diversity and senior academic and administration leaders to create regular opportunities for me, and for members of my leadership team, to hear directly from members of the faculty, staff and student body about the University's progress on achieving inclusive excellence.

I want to hear from you.

Being candid, even blunt, may not be Minnesota Nice.

But it can serve to drive progress and the pace at which I want this University to operate.

Also, I am considering ways to establish accountability measures for meaningful action toward achieving strategic equity and diversity goals that will be applied throughout the University.

Also, I want to more closely examine the ways in which the University engages in partnership with diverse communities.

I want to see if we can enhance efforts to ensure that we engage in authentic, mutually beneficial collaboration that strengthens our communities while enhancing the core missions of the University.

Finally, I am excited to announce this morning that we are launching a nationwide search for a new Vice President for Equity and Diversity.

By appointment of a vice president, I am keeping this position at the highest level of our leadership.

That is an indication — and, in fact, I hope it is a clear and unmistakable signal — of how important this issue is to me and our University system-wide.

Senior Vice President Robert Jones and I will appoint the search committee next week for this important leadership post.

We will seek the best person in the nation to advance all aspects of this critical work.

As we begin this search, I want to thank Kris Lockhart for serving — and continuing to serve with great energy and effectiveness — in the interim leadership position. Thank you, Kris, very much.

So, why does this all matter? Why are equity and diversity so critical?

Here's why.

This University educates the best and brightest of Minnesota's future business, civic, cultural and political leaders.

If they go on to work for Ernst & Young, BlueCross Blue Shield, Target or the Minnesota Twins, they will be operating in a global environment.

In our labs, in our classrooms, through community partnerships, and on those campus paths we all travel, we create the future.

The world's and Minnesota's future will be increasingly diverse.

It must be inclusive, and it must be equitable.

No one — no one University President — can achieve excellence in this area, or any area, alone.

So today I'm asking you —

  • Students, faculty, and staff,
  • Elected officials and business leaders,
  • Alumni, Regents and community members —

I am asking you all to join me in moving this University — THIS UNIFIED UNIVERSITY — forward to a future of excellence, which requires a future of diversity.

Thank you.