State of the University 2018: Our indisputable impact, our tough issues, our boundless opportunities

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Full video of State of the University.

As I near the end of my seventh year as President, I reflect on a past year of challenges and successes of our University. Ahead, as always, I see a year of promise and opportunity.

But right now, we are wrestling with a handful of tricky issues and those, frankly, are at the heart of the state of our University today. More than ever, all around us, we live with tensions.

We’re struggling with differing views and sensibilities on free speech and expression. We’re regularly responding to the uncertain politics of Washington — particularly as it applies to our international students and our Dreamers. We’re fighting back – as is the rest of the nation – against the national and campus-wide sexual misconduct crisis. We’re developing a systemwide strategic plan that will guide us as we make tough decisions that could have real impact on our budget for years to come. And we’re in transition as we address new opportunities in our approach to academic medicine and training.

There are many challenges on our plates, and none of them is easy. At times like these, we especially need to take a breath and recognize the enormous successes of this University, and the honor we share together as we advance its cause.

In our world today, and in our country, there may be no greater force for good, for equality, and for hope and progress as our great research universities of America, and the University of Minnesota is a flagship of that fleet. Please, don't forget that.

Before I dive into all of our tough issues, let me acknowledge the presence of two members of our Board of Regents with us. Thank you Regents Linda Cohen and Michael Hsu for your leadership and your attendance today. And Regent Tom Anderson is with us remotely, watching from our Morris campus. Greetings Regent Anderson. UMD Chancellor Lynn Black is with us here in the Twin Cities and Chancellors Michelle Behr, Lori Carrell and Mary Holz-Clause are watching in Morris, Rochester and Crookston. We’re joined by many senior leaders, including Executive Vice President and Provost Karen Hanson. 

Let me start with some good news.

According to the Center for Measuring University Performance, our Twin Cities campus is one of only eight public institutions in the nation that is in the top group in all nine categories they measure — from research dollars to incoming students test scores to philanthropic gifts to the quality of our faculty. I said at my inauguration in 2011 that I wanted to be mentioned in the same conversation with Berkeley, Michigan and North Carolina and, by just about every measure, we can be … we should be, … as the Center agrees.

Meanwhile, from Morris to Duluth and from Crookston to Rochester, our campuses are producing Fulbright award-nominees, Olympians — 10 recent gold medalists —, agriculture science national champs, and well-prepared undergraduates becoming highly qualified medical students. Our faculty continues to shine on all of our campuses, publications abound, and discoveries are creating a record number of startups annually  . . . 18, last year, by the way, and others, recently, have been named among the best university startups in the nation. Our 26,000 full-time employees are more engaged than ever, and our union contracts are settled, and I appreciate that and all the work that you do.

I also truly appreciate and am energized by the role we play in Minnesota and American culture when, during the course of my work, I engage in significant ways with leaders of peer institutions. The most significant this year has been our involvement with the American Talent Initiative, or ATI.  ATI is a group of universities – now 84 strong – who have six- year graduation rates of 70 percent or more. On our Twin Cities campus, we’re actually closing in on that figure in our FOUR-year rate. More importantly, the ATI schools have pledged to increase the graduation rates of Pell-eligible and middle income students to match those of all students.

The long-term goal is clear: We collectively want to graduate 50,000 more students from low- and middle-income groups each year than we do now.  Goals like these put into focus why many of us — I hope you, certainly me — chose to make higher education our life’s work.

First, is the call to make a difference. Our civilization, over thousands of years, discovered, refined, destroyed, penalized, ignored, exiled, rescued, developed, and, ultimately, embraced facts and ideas. The good part of that sequence – discovered, refined, rescued, developed, and embraced – has occurred at universities since the 16th century, for about 500 years. 

And we remain the place where civilization can find its best self … Where people of all ages can come to learn and grow, and where all ideas can take root, and be made stronger by the challenge of other ideas. Universities create great promise for many, but there remain huge obstacles and headwinds against our success, and this is why our partnership in the Talent Initiative is so important. 

The challenges are surely many. First, is simply the rapid evolution into a global knowledge economy driven by technology.  New jobs now require analytical skills, which is why we cannot and are not abandoning the study of what makes us human. Universities, I have often said, are both the cradles and carriers of civilization. In this world of technology it is more important than ever to treasure and grow our knowledge of art, history, culture and people so we retain what makes us … us.

And that's why I support the work underway to determine what changes are needed — after 25 years — to our existing Liberal Education requirements. I look forward to seeing the specific recommendations of a redesign committee, led by former FCC Chair Sally Kohlstedt, which should go to the Faculty Senate this fall." The goal, of course, is always to provide our 21st century Twin Cities undergraduate students with the knowledge, skills, and values to be successful in their personal and professional lives, and as global citizens. 

The second challenge to our talent initiative is the information overload everyone in this room feels.  I’m told 92 percent of teens are online daily, and 24 percent of teens are online “almost constantly,” and some of them might even live in homes with you. That can’t be good, and the need for us to teach our students how to curate information and how to discern real facts from “fake news” has never been more urgent.

Third, the current distrust of nearly all large institutions is corrosive. A 2017 Gallup poll showed that among all major institutions — from organized religion to the Supreme Court to Congress — only three garnered more than 50 percent of substantial trust: the military, small business, and the police.  And, unfortunately, I’m sure that 50 percent of residents in many communities don’t trust the police. As for us in higher education, depending on which poll you read, we’re not real popular, either.

There are other challenges, including the changes in demograpics, but the ending message is clear.  We have to redouble our efforts to produce more educated people. 

And the reasons the Talent Initiative is so important are that college graduates are:

  • More likely to experience upward economic mobility
  • Contribute to the tax base
  • Strengthen local economies
  • Engage in their communities
  • Improve Public Health and
  • Send their Own Children to College ... enabling multi-generational upward mobility.

We here at the University have made great strides on advancing the successes of Pell-eligible and low-income students. Right now, our four-year graduation rate for low-income students is 60 percent, about eight points behind our overall four-year Twin Cities rate.  Just ten years ago, Pell Grant students graduated at a rate of 35 percent. 35 to 60 … that’s real progress.

We’ve invested in the President’s Emerging Scholars and the Promise Scholarships, which means that 95 percent of students from Minnesota families making $50,000 a year or less can attend the University tuition free on the strength of federal, state and our own gift aid. And we’re still building our CORE program, which stands for Community Outreach, Retention and Engagement. We’re targeting high-achievement students of color as they transition to middle school and onto high school. We’ve got to improve the college awareness, the awarness of the Univesity of Minnesota preparation of those students with the goal of making them our students one day.

This is important to remember amid all the tension, all the mistrust, all the attacks on higher education . . . We help to drive social mobility in our state and our nation. We’re not perfect, we have lots of work to do, but we’re improving, and that’s very important to me.


Those sorts of goals and aspirations lift us up. Hot button issues challenge us, even threaten us. Perhaps, THE hottest and highest percolating issue on campuses in Minnesota and elsewhere is the role of free speech. We live in a time of deep division in our nation, our state and on our campuses.

But we at the University live and work in an institution where opposing points of views, skepticism, and disagreements are part of the educational experience. We have to grapple with and find ways to manage the differences of opinion. We must dedicate ourselves to promoting free speech while still fostering a campus climate that supports equity, diversity and inclusion. This, of course, includes a diversity of thought and the ability to learn how to disagree with each other with civility.

Just last Monday, a conservative political commentator and writer spoke on our campus. What people say on our campus and what people want to hear on our campus is not up to me. Our registered student groups — which run the political and cultural gamut — can invite speakers of their choice, as is our policy.

As an academic institution, we expect, we encourage and we promote all kinds of ideas. That’s the business we’re in. Our University’s guiding principles say, in part — and I quote — , “We strive to sustain an open exchange of ideas in an environment that embodies the values of academic freedom, responsibility, integrity and cooperation.”

As a community, we had an opportunity to put those principles into practice Monday evening and, all things considered, I think we did a respectable job. While some disagreed with the speaker’s message, he was able to speak and deliver his point of view in a safe environment. Others, with very different points of view, organized their own forum that day and it, too, was conducted in a safe setting.

Let’s just review what the First Amendment of the United States Constitution actually says:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The fact is, freedom of speech might not be as popular as you would think when that particular thing is violently offensive to you. So — in exercising my own free speech — I’ve said this before, and let me repeat and be clear: When it comes to hate, when it comes to racism or anti-Semitism or Islamaphobia or homophobia, I oppose it and I condemn it.

At the same time, I subscribe to the principles made real by our Bias Response and Referral Network, which state — and I quote —  . . . That the “University is committed to safeguarding the free expression rights of all University community members, even if the expression is biased, hateful, and contrary to University values of equity and diversity.” The principles go on to recognize that “biased and hateful expression causes harm and fractures in our campus community that must be addressed.”

That’s our struggle and our task to balance because, due in large part to our public mission and support, our bedrock assumption is that ideas are tested in the crucible of free exchange. As our interim vice president for Equity and Diversity Michael Goh told the Board of Regents last month — channeling educator Parker J. Palmer — we must hold our tension in life-giving ways.

That’s sometimes difficult, and it’s not in style these days. It’s hard to feel empathetic or open-minded when you feel marginalized, and it’s absolutely true that there are many communities on our campuses who have for too long felt marginalized. We are working hard to make our campus more welcoming and respectful for everyone. We surely have work to do. 


Let me turn now to another tension that centers on the very unsettled issue around DACA, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which was set to expire next week.

The United States Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear the Trump Administration’s appeal of lower court rulings. That means, for now, DACA remains in place and the government must continue to accept renewal applications.

Ever since the threat of the end of the DACA program was raised last September, I have stood with other higher education and business leaders in urging our elected officials to resolve the issue and to protect our students and faculty. I’ve written op-eds and made repeated statements supporting our Dreamers and stating the obvious: the elimination of DACA would potentially remove 6,000-plus individuals who are vital to the Minnesota workforce and our communities, and likely a couple hundred of our students. Our Immigration Response Team maintains an active and informative website at

From the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to Bernie Sanders, there is widespread support for Dreamers. 79 percent of Americans support Dreamers. I don’t think you can get 79 percent of Americans to agree that today is March 1st!

Let’s see how these court cases play out and Congressional negotiations unfold, but be assured, the University of Minnesota will do all it can to protect our Dreamers and, of course, the Minnesota Dream Act remains a state law that was adopted by the Board of Regents as the official policy for the University system. Students who meet the law's criteria will continue to receive in-state tuition and can apply for financial aid.                       


These sorts of conflicts, this sort of battleground on campus, feeds into and serves as a backdrop to increasingly troubling attitudes toward higher education. This informs us as we approach our legislative agenda this spring.

Frankly, there are a few in the Legislature and some of our citizens who believe that we are metrocentric, that we’re elitist, and we’re too liberal. To me, excellence does not equal elitism.  

As for our metrocentricity, our statewide presence and impact is indisputable. We have campuses, research centers, health care affiliations, Extension, and alumni in all 87 counties. Seventy-one percent of our undergraduate students across our five campuses are Minnesotans. Even as the number of Greater Minnesota high school graduates has declined, we’ve maintained our percentage of first-year students from Greater Minnesota on our Twin Cities campus.

In Crookston alone, the presence of our campus and its jobs means nearly $64 million in annual economic impact. In Duluth, the University means nearly 5,000 jobs. In Morris, our campus generates about $5 million in state and local taxes. In Rochester, the economic impact is $30 million annually. As for the intellectual, cultural and scientific impact that our students and faculty bring to those communities: that’s priceless.

We need to tell those stories to our legislators and our neighbors as we bring our bonding request to the Capitol and as we’re seeking to renew some 19th century facilities for 21st century teaching, learning and research. We have 110- and 129-year-old classroom buildings that need restrooms and wiring and elevators to improve their energy efficiency, their accessibility, their reliability and safety. We have as much as $4 billion in deferred maintenance across our system. Half of the buildings on this Twin Cities campus are more than 50 years old. We’ve got to tell our stories because we need to have facilities that match our excellence.


And, believe me, I’ve got some stories to tell.

In many ways these stories link our legislative request to the extraordinary amount of work underway on a Systemwide Strategic Plan. This is a priority of the Board of Regents and our senior leadership team. Everyone in our University community needs to pay attention to this work because it will likely substantially drive our 2019 Biennial Budget request to the Legislature. It may inform decisions about priorities and, so, what we might stop funding.

We must examine how we can use all of our best resources and how we can most efficiently be the stewards of public and tuition dollars. After this process is completed, we want everyone to be able to understand our budget by examining our Systemwide Strategic Plan, a plan that will clearly identify where we should invest and where we should stand down.

We’re looking closely at all five of our campuses and identifying common areas of strength while highlighting the unique nature of each. It’s imperative that we all think about ourselves as a system of complementary campuses. 

Of course, our Twin Cities campus is the state’s largest and the only comprehensive research institution. We continue to make our mark around our research and our Grand Challenges initiative.  Very shortly, Provost Hanson will be announcing Phase Three of our successful Grand Challenges Research Initiative, which is identifying ways to enhance interdisciplinary scholarship to re-position our University as a real leader in addressing the most pressing societal challenges. 

The areas of focus for Phase Three are:

  • Feeding the World Sustainably,
  • Advancing Health Through Tailored Solutions, and
  • Enhancing Community and Individual Capacity for a Changing World.

In the first two phases, nearly 400 faculty, students and external partners, representing 15 Twin Cities colleges, have produced exceptional interdisciplinary research. 


It is our students who are also guideposts along the way of this statewide strategic planning work. Let me tell you about four of them and about how they personify their campuses and help to assemble a collage of our entire system.

Take Amber Oesterich, a University of Minnesota Crookston junior. She lives in the Twin Cities but is one of our many online students at UMC. Amber started her college career in New York City and didn’t like the residential student life, came back home, got a job at IKEA and pondered her next move. She’d never heard of UMC, but knew that an online education was for her. Today, she’s 24 years old, a fulltime forklift operator at IKEA, a shift manager at Papa John’s, and a UMC international business major. I do not know when she sleeps!

Amber says the traditional student lifestyle doesn’t work for her, but, in many ways, she’s living that student’s life, learning to manage her time, regularly in touch with faculty — if electronically — and readying this spring for a study abroad session in South Africa. After she graduates in 2019, she wants to take that international business degree and — guess what? — work for IKEA  . . . in Sweden. Amber’s success is a testament to the opportunities that Crookston offers in our system.

Consider Linnea Kingbird-Martini, a University of Minnesota Morris junior. Linnea is a member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians and picked Morris over other options because of the campus’s remarkable connections to Native people, dating back to its founding. As it is for all Indigenous students at Morris, her tuition was waived, but not the rigor of her classes, her time spent on the soccer team for the Cougars, or her commitment to undergraduate research as a McNair Scholar. A psychology major, she’s already published as a summer intern through the Center for Homicide Research here in the Twin Cities. And she’s looking at pursuing a Ph.D. — we hope here on our Twin Cities campus — with the goal of fighting suicide in the Native community. Linnea says Morris is, “Homey and high-quality” . . .  And what’s more comforting than that for a college student?

And then there’s Trevor Winger, a UMD junior. Trevor grew up in Mountain Iron on Minnesota’s Iron Range. He thought he’d become a physics major at UMD, but instead, with the mentorship of UMD faculty, one of his passions is now linguistics, and one of his inspirations was a Ph.D. dissertation written by a scholar here on the Twin Cities campus. So, he turned his research toward understanding the regional grammar of Iron Rangers. Trevor has been conducting research as an undergraduate on the grammar of Iron Rangers. Some people think they have an accent!

Trevor says that interests him because of who he is and where he came from but also because, fundamentally, as Trevor puts it, the way we speak reflects on what it means to be human. Trevor has taken his interests beyond language.  He’s also a computer science major at UMD because, in his view, the ability to use science and technology to empower people in disadvantaged situations — with, say, communications disorders — is the true interdisciplinary beauty of being human. UMD, with its range of offerings, but its manageable size, allows students like Trevor to go in any direction they please.

Which leads to Hawa Ali, a first-year student in our Medical School here on the Twin Cities campus. Hawa is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Rochester, which, of course, advertises itself as offering unparalleled education in the health sciences, including an integrated, hands-on curriculum, and personalized attention. For Hawa, UMR truly delivered on its promise. A native of Somalia, Hawa came to the United States and to Rochester when she was 10. She always had a sense that some sort of health profession was in her future. The size of UMR, the accessibility to her professors and the health sciences environment that makes the Rochester community so special encouraged her to stay in her hometown for college. When she first entered UMR she didn’t have the confidence to believe she could become a physician.  

But UMR’s selling points — small classes, engaged professors, a tight-knit community — proved true and she emerged more than ready to be accepted at a handful of medical schools. What truly inspired her was the UMR campus, which is in the heart of one of the world’s most famous and dynamic health care communities. “You see people walking on the street that you aspire to be like,” she said. And now she’s training to be a doctor in the Twin Cites, home to the nation’s largest Somali community, a community whose health care she wants to advance. Her aspirations are reaching reality.

Through those students we see our University of Minnesota system today. It embraces online education and the needs of students who want to break the mold.  It embraces the liberal arts and the culture of Minnesota and students with interdisciplinary fervor. It embraces a tradition of educating Native American students like few other universities do across the country. And it embraces our commitment to new Americans who get their undergraduate and professional degrees at our University, and who continue to make Minnesota and this country strong.

Amber, Linnea, Trevor and Hawa demonstrate that each campus can learn from one another to ensure a powerful system for all of Minnesota and Minnesotans.


Those students are today’s shining stories. Some of our University’s most lasting and pioneering stories have come through our health sciences. You know some of them.

First successful open heart surgery. Invention of the portable pace maker. Breakthroughs in HIV drug invention. A nation leading commitment to interprofessional education among all of our health sciences schools and colleges. And the list goes on …

But for too long, the organizational structure around academic medicine and training — around clinical medicine here — has been dysfunctional. Today we are seeking pathways to remarkably improved clinical relationships that will also enhance our research and patient care. As you know, our conversations with Fairview Health Services continue. With various partners, we can be a powerful force, but we will not continue with a status quo focused on conflict and internal struggle. The history of our relationships will not determine the future, and any partnership going forward must value the strengths we bring to it.  

We have tremendous assets and an extraordinary history and tradition, and must continue to work towards a better future. That future involves structures with academic leadership integrated throughout. And at the end of the day, the unmovable fact is that University of Minnesota Physicians, as the clinical practice of the Medical School, must remain strong and intact. I know that Dean Jacob Tolar, a remarkable leader, is a champion for that point of view.  This is essential for us to fulfill our land-grant mission to provide the highest level of health care to Minnesotans. I am hopeful that we can successfully navigate those pathways in the near future.


Finally, let me turn to a public health issue, and that’s our critically important Initiative to Prevent Sexual Misconduct. If for nothing else, as president I hope to be remembered for paving the groundwork for a deep and lasting culture change around sexual misconduct across our campuses.

As we all know, from the studios of Hollywood to the corridors of the nation’s Capitol, we have a sexual misconduct crisis in our nation.  Remarkably, some don’t believe that.

But according to a recent Minnesota Poll, 63 percent of all women in our state say they’ve been victims of sexual harassment. And, in a survey three years ago, nearly one in four of our female students said they’d been victims of sexual assault. And men are sexually assaulted and harassed, too.

That’s why I launched the President’s Initiative to Prevent Sexual Misconduct last year and charged the Dean of our School of Public Health, John Finnegan, to lead the effort to combat this public health crisis. Together with his co-lead, Associate Professor Karen Miksch, their team will help us see what success will look like as we in this community of nearly 100,000 people on five campuses work on a long-term solution. 

We can, we must and we will do better because each incident of sexual assault, harassment, relationship violence, and stalking is one too many. We fail when there are victims of sexual misconduct and when we don’t work as hard as possible to support them and provide continuous and required training to all of our students, faculty and staff. Dean Finnegan’s public health approach is to go upstream and diagnose the root causes of sexual misconduct and seek ways to prevent it. 

There are hurdles. First, we are remarkably big and, so, fragmented with a diversity of personalities, places of origin, ages and norms that come to us. And, secondly, the excellent work of scholars, counselors and health care experts across our system is rarely coordinated. 

We need to bring all of this together to create pathways to the preventative measures we all seek, and to root out the causes of sexual misconduct and be rid of them.

Vigilance is necessary and not only because there are personal consequences for victims, survivors and even for perpetrators. It’s also because our institution is in the crosshairs of funders, donors and lawmakers. Just last month, the National Science Foundation announced it is now requiring grantees to report instances of sexual harassment by Principal Investigators, co-PI’s or any other grant personnel. We anticipate similar requirements from other funders.

If you haven’t already, you will be receiving notification soon about the required training. I’ve taken the online training and it’s very good, emphasizing how to intervene as a bystander to harassment and how to interact with victims. An early compliance group of 1,500, including Regents, senior leaders, deans, and faculty leadership have achieved a completion rate of 99.4 percent. I think I've got nine people I've got to track down.

Stopping sexual misconduct on our campuses begins with every one of us, and our challenge is to become a community where sexual assault and harassment aren’t tolerated and where those who would attempt it find the community united to stop it.

With that in mind, I’m very thankful for the support from faculty leaders and the Senate as we required training for all faculty and staff system-wide. I also have asked our Chancellors in Crookston, Duluth, Morris and Rochester to identify similar programs or recommendations that are appropriate to the needs of their campuses. They are each advancing similar Initiatives, and will be part of a system-wide conference here on the Twin Cities campus next Tuesday. 

A second phase, now under development, will consist of department-level training, and it will provide opportunities for more in-depth discussion. Work around the public awareness campaign is underway and that campaign will be launched soon. I just can't emphasize enough how important this work is to me, to our entire senior leadership team, and to the health, safety, and wellbeing of our University of Minnesota community.                                       


Let me close with where I began. From free speech, to immigration, to sexual misconduct, there is tension in our country and it’s on our campuses. Please take those tensions for what they are, while realizing the life changing opportunities you give each day to our students, our patients, and to each other.   

Yes, we have some tough issues and we have our differences. And, yes, from time to time, we make our mistakes. But always remember that the great University of Minnesota — that is, all of us — we have the power to drive what is good and important for our communities, for our state and our nation.

When I come to work every day, I, for one, don’t ever forget that. Thank you.