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Bob Bruininks speaking at a podium

Speaking to University constituents statewide this spring, President Bruininks is driving home the message that a cultural commitment to excellence is critical to achieving--and keeping--top-three stature.

Concerted effort

Vision of sustained excellence paints 'top three' as way more than a numbers game

By Jim Thorp

Brief, March 28, 2007

Two years of strategic planning and implementation have yielded many noteworthy accomplishments--among them, the fact that University of Minnesota faculty and staff systemwide are acutely aware of the U's strategic goal: To become one of the top three public research universities in the world within 10 years.

At the March 2007 Board of Regents meeting, U president Robert Bruininks restated the University's commitment to the top-three goal. And while he drew the regents' attention to how far we've come, the underlying message was that there is no one method, no one measure, and no specific end date.

Engaged in excellence

For the regents, Bruininks highlighted several key initiatives currently underway in support of the four established "pillars" of strategic positioning: exceptional students, exceptional faculty and staff, exceptional organization, and exceptional innovation.

Student learning and success outcomes. The Council on Enhancing Student Learning has adopted seven undergraduate learning outcomes, currently being considered for wider endorsement by the University Senate. Once implemented, these outcomes mean that, at the time of receiving a bachelor's degree, students:

Additionally, staff and faculty have developed a second set of outcomes to foster citizenship and engagement. Upon earning a bachelor's degree, students will demonstrate:

The key is deep-seated cultural change: Vice provost for faculty and academic affairs Arlene Carney says that weaving these outcomes into the day-to-day work of not only students, but faculty and staff, is the distinguishing feature of the University of Minnesota's efforts in this area.

Faculty and staff leadership and recognition. The University's excellence stems from the quality of its human capital. Exceptional faculty and staff are critical to recruiting and retaining the best and brightest students; attracting research funding to the University; and garnering the attention of other world-class scholars.

To foster leadership and ensure recognition of performance, the U is working to:

Building on past successes is critical: PEL is recruiting for its seventh cohort for 2007-08--roughly 150 staff members have taken advantage so far. In addition, 19 Twin Cities campus staff members participated in TLP last year, and 20 are register for this year's program in Duluth.

Seeing change
According to President Bruininks, nearly every decision is now discussed in the context of Transforming the U's stated commitment to exceptional students, exceptional faculty and staff, exceptional organization, and exceptional innovation. The three new colleges, for example, represent a new academic vision that supports:

* exceptional students, by making it easier for them to access classes and resources across separate but closely related disciplines.

* exceptional faculty, by encouraging interaction and cross-disciplinary collaboration.

* exceptional organization, by realizing efficiencies in business systems and processes.

* exceptional innovation, by facilitating the types of interdisciplinary inquiry required to solve society's most pressing questions and garner federal support.

In an organization the size of the University, transformative change is often difficult to see from within.

"Even those of us working on this every day often only see what's in front of us--only see Transforming the U as it impacts our jobs," says Bruininks. "It's easy to miss the bigger picture. We need to do a better job of making those connections for people."

An organization-wide commitment to excellence. A common theme in Bruininks' ongoing discussions of the U's transformation is that no aspect of the University can be overlooked.

"We must be as well known for the quality of our management practices as for the quality our academic endeavors," he says. "Our efforts to create an exceptional organization sometimes gets short-changed in the face of higher profile successes, but they are no less important."

Bruininks shared several examples of such successes with the regents, reflecting a top-to-bottom emphasis on transformation in University Services, in particular. From a low-risk competitive process for capital projects that has helped the U avoid tens of millions of dollars in redesign and construction costs to new ways of changing light bulbs that should save more than a million dollars in the next few years, University Services has embraced the vision of Transforming the U.

Even the six-year capital improvement plan presented to the regents by vice president for University Services Kathleen O'Brien and team incorporated the four-pillars model, with goals specific to the creation of learning and research spaces articulated for each of pillars.

Innovative responses to research opportunities. The president has long held that many of the most critical problems facing society today require an interdisciplinary approach to solve.

"The University is an established national leader in many disciplines--these disciplines of distinction must remain strong and continue to create new knowledge and ideas for collaborative research efforts," he says. "We believe that interdisciplinary institutes provide a flexible, responsive model for conducting research and attracting support in the future. The Academic Health Center's research-corridors concept provides another compelling model of an agile research organization."

But for the University to better support its external constituents, it must also facilitate industry partnerships and remove barriers to private investment. Outreach through the new corporate relations center and efforts to simplify cumbersome or unclear policies regarding intellectual property and start-ups are two initiatives focused on improving U responsiveness and fostering partnerships.

Making it stick

"Stature" is another word that comes up time and again when Bruininks talks about "top three." From the beginning it was clear the strategic goal needed to be specific, time-definite, and audacious--and the University has identified an accomplished peer group with which to compare itself, as well as 20 indicators of success, many of which have multiple supporting measures that are already being tracked.

But the true goal, according to Bruininks, is "a deep and abiding commitment to achievement and contribution in everything we do."

"In that light, it's also much easier to imagine an equivalent standard of excellence for the coordinate campuses," he says. "The 'University 20' indicators show progress in certain critical areas, but even the best numbers can't sustain themselves. Transformation requires cultural change in order to last."

And that requires persistence--and the realization that, in today's competitive higher education environment, there is no finish line.

For more information, download the president's complete presentation to the board. (PPT 1.52 MB)


FURTHER READING Healthy optimism Up to the task First flight for fledgling institute Ascending U