Speeches and Writing
“The University: Minnesota’s Pride and Promise”
Inaugural Speech of Eric W. Kaler
Sixteenth President of the University of Minnesota
Thursday, September 22, 2011, Ted Mann Concert Hall
I first came to the University of Minnesota in September of 1978.
I was about to be 22 years old.
And 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.
That was the University of Minnesota then, and, in many ways, what it still is today.
But those twin pillars of excellence and access, those two foundational stones for the prosperity of the state of Minnesota, have never been more at risk.
That’s why I am devoting this next chapter of my life to the mission of this University, and to the future of its students.
But I am just one person. I cannot achieve excellence alone, not in these unusual times, not amid increasingly scarce resources, not across this vast organization.
That’s why I’m asking you – students, faculty, staff, elected officials, business leaders, alumni, and citizens of Minnesota – … I’m asking you today to join me to move this University forward, and to tell our wonderful stories. I’m asking you to help me to instill pride in this great University among every citizen in our state.
Together, we can fulfill this University’s extraordinary promise. My friends, we have work to do.
Governor Dayton, thank you for your part in today’s ceremony, and for your continuing and unswerving support. Thank you very much.
Chair Cohen, Vice Chair Larson, and Regents Allen, Beeson, Brod, Frobenius, Hung, Johnson, McMillan, Ramirez, Simmons and Sviggum … Thank you for your wisdom, your governance of this great University, and your confidence in me as its President.
Mayors Coleman and Rybak, other honored elected officials, faculty, students, and staff here, and watching in Crookston, Duluth, Morris and Rochester, welcome. Alumni here and watching around the world …
Friends in our Extension offices and Research and Outreach Centers across the state, all of our honored delegates from Minnesota, from across the nation and around the world … Members of the Inaugural Committee and its chair, my good friend, Frank Bates … Regents Professor Kathryn Sikkink, our mace bearer …
All our distinguished guests and friends, welcome, and thank you for joining us.
I am particularly touched that so many of my Delaware and Stony Brook friends are here today, including the president of Stony Brook University, Dr. Samuel L. Stanley, Jr.
Sam, thank you for coming.
As I said, September 1978 was important to me, but it pales in comparison to the morning of June 17, 1979. That was the day I first laid eyes on the woman who would become my wife, Karen Kaler. A man could not ask for a better friend, a better companion, or a better partner, than she is to me. She blessed me with two sons, Charlie and Sam, and everyday they give me confidence in our future. To them and to our other family members, thank you for being here with me today.
We have work to do.
I am committed to: Re-invigorating how we teach and learn, and ensuring an exceptional undergraduate experience, a rigorous graduate environment, and a world-class research enterprise;
I am committed to: Re-imagining how we operate and function;
I am committed to: Championing the value of this University to the people of this state;
I am committed to: Strengthening our business, community and philanthropic partnerships;
I am committed to: Unleashing an entrepreneurial spirit amongst all of us, reaching globally even as we serve and engage our local communities;
I am committed to: Leading a University that understands that diversity is critical to achieving excellence.
Together, we can re-invent the land-grant vision of the nineteenth century to meet the global needs of the twenty-first century.
And together, we can place the University of Minnesota among the group of the best public research universities in this nation.
I am sure you recognize these words:
“FOUNDED IN THE FAITH THAT MEN ARE ENNOBLED BY UNDERSTANDING
“DEDICATED TO THE ADVANCEMENT OF LEARNING AND THE SEARCH FOR TRUTH
“DEVOTED TO THE INSTRUCTION OF YOUTH AND THE WELFARE OF THE STATE.”
Complete with the gender bias of the early twentieth century, those are the words inscribed above the grand columns of Northop Auditorium on the Twin Cities campus.
Those 33 words are an enduring, succinct, description of our noble mission. They are words that have stood the test of time and should continue to serve as a guidepost for all we do.
I’ll come back to those words in a few minutes, but let me tell you first about Ifrah Esse. and show you the impact this University can have on a student, her family and our state.
Ifrah is from Minneapolis, by way of Somalia. She is the sort of student and alumna who generates enormous pride in this University.
By every measure, she is our pride and our promise.
Let me tell you why …
Ifrah graduated in 2008 with a B.A. in sociology. That achievement came 12 years after she emigrated with her parents and her eight surviving siblings from a Kenyan refugee camp.
When Ifrah arrived in the United States, she was 11. She could neither read nor write Somali, and knew not a word of English.
While in high school, she visited our Twin Cities campus and fell in love with it. She set—and achieved—a goal to become a University of Minnesota student. She remembers being inspired by her professors to think in new ways.
The daughter of a truck driver and a school lunch worker, she worked fulltime while at the U. This helped her family, and paid for her books. As a strong student, she received grants and scholarships to help with tuition.
Today, Ifrah is a sourcing specialist for Target, working with vendors worldwide to deliver their goods to stores nationwide. On her own time, she manages to mentor immigrants, who, just like her, possess immense promise.
Three of Ifrah’s older siblings have also graduated from the U, including a brother who recently graduated from our Medical School.
A dozen years removed from a refugee camp, Ifrah says the University of Minnesota has become an “Esee family tradition.”
Ifrah, thank you for letting me share your story … Please stand so we can honor you.
By the way, she is now planning to apply to law school here. Ifrah, if you need a letter of recommendation … just let me know!
My friends, we just don’t do any better than that.
Students like Ifrah are the heart and soul of this University, representing excellence, access, personal transformation and promise for our workforce and civic life … punctuated with a huge exclamation point of pride.
She is an example of how this state’s only land grant University fulfills its promise. We must keep that promise for – and to – all of our students on all of our distinctive campuses …
from Crookston -- known for its applied research and online learning innovations
to Rochester – with its joint programs using Mayo Clinic and IBM facilities
from Morris – a unique public liberal arts college and model of sustainability
to Duluth – home to the nation’s only large lakes observatory.
We serve the entire state of Minnesota.
We also innovate. We discover.
We create the future. .
It is another essential part of our mission.
The words on Northrop call it “THE SEARCH FOR TRUTH.”
We call it research.
And we are Minnesota’s only research university.
With world class talent, laboratories, equipment and technology, our scholars are engaged everyday in investigations that offer great promise for cures, for technological advances, and for new understanding of the world’s social and political problems.
Why should we care about having a research university in your backyard?
Because we are a home for the innovation that makes Minnesota work, that contributes to the success of Fortune 500 companies, small businesses, and start-ups.
Our research University is also the cradle of creative thought in the arts and humanities. We lead the way in professional studies – such as law and medicine - in the state. They make Minnesota and the Twin Cities a cultural magnet within our region, and within the nation.
From the pacemaker to the Black Box, from open-heart surgery to Honeycrisp apples, the University’s history of discovery is rich and profound. Today, in labs just a short walk from here, we are investigating food safety, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and childhood illnesses of all kinds.
Now, can we guarantee that yet another life-saving bone marrow transplant protocol or another strain of soybeans will be developed here? Guarantees are tough.
But I can guarantee you this: If we don’t invest, if we don’t attract and retain the best scientists, if we don’t recruit and support the best young investigators and the best young minds, we absolutely will not discover new things.
Instead, we will wither as a University. We will decline as a state.
We enjoy today the fruits of investments that were made by our parents and grandparents. If we don’t invest in our children just as they did, then OUR grandchildren will not have the benefits, nor the standard of living we enjoy.
Norman Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin, and a passionate supporter of research and development in higher education, put it this way: If you happen to find yourself on an airplane that is losing altitude, and if you have to throw out things to cut weight … the absolute last thing you would throw out is the engine.
We must invest to keep our engine running.
When it comes to excellence, I know of no great research university without a great medical school, without great health sciences. As in other areas of research and discovery, we have an exceptional history of innovation in the health sciences. I am committed to moving us again to the very top tier of excellence nationally. We must ensure we can continue to produce the next generation of health professionals for our state.
But even more than results, research produces trained people capable of finding the next generation of advances. I was a graduate student here, and I know what we can do. That is why we must strengthen our support of graduate students and programs, but also challenge them and enable them to achieve higher levels of discovery. I want us to be the destination of choice for the best and brightest graduate students from around the world.
Our professional students—from pharmacy to public policy, from dentistry to business -- have in their hands the future of our health, our companies, our government, our society.
Excellence in research extends far beyond the laboratory or clinic. The humanities, social sciences and arts are also integral to our research mission.
Don Randel, a former president of the University of Chicago, said it best – and I love this quote:
“The ultimate foundation of any society ought to be the human imagination, honed to the greatest degree and in the company of its faithful companion … curiosity.”
Curiosity is the driver for creative work in all fields. A curious and open mind can yield previously unimagined beauty and ways of expression. Creative works are the core of what we call civilization. In turn, their development and maintenance are a core responsibility of universities, such as ours.
We know that American public higher education is the envy of the world. Why is it?
Because all of our students get a core liberal arts education. They gain knowledge of cultures and languages, as well as the ability to think critically and communicate effectively. The ability to reason and criticize is essential to our democracy and civil society.
These skills are a bedrock for education across the University of Minnesota.
Let me turn now to public engagement, another activity critical to our mission.
We always will respond to the changing needs of our communities, state and world by sharing our expertise, knowledge, resources and discoveries.
We have a tradition of outreach to our rural communities that we will not abandon.
Not only because we’re so directed by the Morrill Act of 1862 …
And not only because we continue to advance our legacy of agricultural innovation and feeding the world …
No, we won’t abandon these roots because of students like Kenny Deutz.
Kenny grew up on his family’s farm near Marshall, Minnesota, tending crops and milking cows. Since he was a little boy he has wanted to be a veterinarian. Kenny came to the University of Minnesota to achieve that goal.
A few months ago, right after his freshman year, Kenny was accepted into VetFast, an accelerated veterinarian degree program. Across the nation, there’s an acute shortage of large animal veterinarians. As the only veterinary college in the state, the University of Minnesota has an obligation to help meet this shortage.
VetFast students receive their bachelor of science and doctor of veterinary medicine degrees in seven years instead of eight. It saves a year’s tuition. It’s good for the economy. It allows young people like Kenny to give back to his community, and live the dream he first had in kindergarten.
Kenny, congratulations, please stand so we can honor you …
While we’re committed to our roots, the fact is the world keeps getting smaller and, as Minnesotan Thomas Friedman says, flatter.
We must rethink our mission of public engagement for the twenty-first century and create new pathways for engagement locally, nationally and globally.
Driving excellence in our mission activities is not enough. We must also be excellent in our operations.
Do you remember the solemn and inspirational words on Northrop?
“FOUNDED IN THE FAITH…
“DEDICATED TO THE ADVANCEMENT…
“DEVOTED TO THE INSTRUCTION…
The story behind those 33 words is instructive. It goes like this …
The idea for inscribing profound words on Northrop was hatched in 1924 … about the same time construction was first proposed.
Four years later, in January, 1928, President Lotus Coffman appointed a committee
… an inscription committee … to write the words.
This committee didn’t meet until March, 1929 … 14 months later. They must have had scheduling issues.
Because they couldn’t come to agreement, the project lost steam and was not revived until the summer of 1935 … six years after the first committee meeting!
By then, Northrop had already opened … with no words.
During this time, the University hired an inscription consultant. He was, of course, from California.
By May 1936, the words were settled on by the committee and, soon after, inscribed.
They are beautiful words. But … 12 years for 33 words?
It’s a fun story and I hope this story is inspiration for a culture change, a re-set that drives us to be more entrepreneurial, less risk-averse and better partners. We must reduce bureaucracy, focus on shared values, and pick up the pace.
In every aspect of University operations, we need to question what we do. We need to know if it has the intended outcome, or if we could do it better, or not at all.
There is a real cost to slowness, to long meetings, excessive committee deliberations and endless email chains. There’s a cost in human resource time, and in the tangled web of bureaucracy that dogs us. And there are opportunity costs.
Of course, we will be data driven and collaborative. A University President has to be relentlessly consultative, but not to the point of stagnation, indecision and missed opportunity.
This institution needs to have an administrative backbone that is effective in supporting teaching, research and public engagement.
Today, I am committing to you that, while I’m President, we will reduce administrative costs every single year.
Role of the faculty
I promised you efficiency in our administrative operations, but we also need to closely re-examine the academic programs we offer, the centers and institutes we support, and the methods of engagement we use.
We must be sure they are as effective as they possibly can be.
If we conduct that examination in an unsentimental and intellectually honest way, we will find programs that we don’t need. We will find centers that are no longer useful. And we will also find opportunities for transformational advances.
Only the faculty – in consultation with our constituencies and with the help of our staff – can ensure that the intellectual mission of this University is at the highest level.
To my faculty colleagues: Your work drives this University.
But if your research is stale, if your classroom is boring, if your community engagement is ineffective … you must re-invent yourself, or, frankly, step aside.
I have never met a faculty colleague who did not want to be working at a great university.
As you expect me to deliver on my job, I expect you to deliver on yours.
We also need to look externally. We must better define our partnership with the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system and more clearly articulate the public value and distinctive role of each institution, while working together as much as possible to deliver higher education in Minnesota as cost-effectively as possible.
We cannot achieve our promise without philanthropy.
Private support is profoundly important, especially as we face public disinvestment in higher education and a resulting rise in tuition.
Philanthropy will not -- and should not -- replace public investment.
However, philanthropy does play an absolutely pivotal role in building on the foundation of public investment to catapult us to excellence. It is the difference between good and great.
I’d like to take a minute to speak directly to our more than half a million alumni around the world, some of whom are watching from distant places.
This is a great university. I bet many of you would be astounded at the quality of this system today—I have been.
On all of our campuses, facilities and laboratories are world class. Teaching is a priority. Undergraduate research is robust. Study abroad is encouraged. Our athletic programs are creating cheers and champions.
Alumni, we need you. We need your input. We need your financial support. We need your energy. Please consider how you can best give back, with your time, your talent and your treasure.
Generosity without boundaries , with only the future of young people in mind, has the transformative power to deliver on the promise of this great University.
These are painful times. Poverty in Minnesota is at an all-time high. Unemployment has severely affected many of our neighbors.
Giving is difficult for many of us. But for those of us who have benefitted from the generosity of others, and to whom so much is given, contributing to this University will go a long way to preserving our shared values: excellence and access.
My wife, Karen, our sons and I are committed to access for students who otherwise cannot afford to attend.
To underscore our commitment, we are establishing today the Kaler Family Scholarship Fund. It will support four scholarships for undergraduate students each year.
I will be relentless and passionate about encouraging others to join us in making similar commitments.
In addition to individual philanthropy, we must continue to strengthen our partnerships with the business community and foundations. These partnerships reflect business leaders’ understanding that having a world-class research university in their back yard is important when it comes to successfully attracting and retaining qualified employees.
You have heard my story, Ifrah’s and Kenny’s. All three of us were able to attend this wonderful University because of financial aid, from private and public sources. It’s up to all of us to ensure that future generations of talented students are not shut out because of the economic circumstances of their families.
Before I conclude, there are two additional points that I feel especially strongly about.
One is diversity. Any great team, organization, or University, must actively pursue diversity. In our faculty … among our staff … and within our student body.
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 ways of knowing.
Diversity pushes us to challenge our assumptions. It sparks our creativity, and it enables a richer and, frankly, more interesting life. A student who, by accident or by plan, has a narrow and homogeneous education will be spectacularly ill-equipped to succeed in a modern life.
Diversity is also an economic and civic imperative. By 2035 almost half of the citizens in the Twin Cities metro area 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, and that extends to a gap in higher education.
We all bear responsibility.
If we are to prosper in the future as a state, it is incumbent upon all of us to close this achievement gap. I will partner with our K-12 leaders and others and bring University expertise and resources to reach this goal. Education is the path to a better life. It always has been.
The second important matter is advocacy. Each of us must step up to the plate and advocate tirelessly for this great University.
Everyday I walk into my office and ask myself, “What am I doing to increase the pride in this University system? What am I doing today to improve our communities? What am I doing today to fulfill the University’s potential, its promise?”
I urge you to ask the same questions of yourself, be you a student, a professor, a researcher, an administrator, a food service worker, a residence hall advisor, an alum, a business leader, elected official, a coach or a Regent: “What am I doing today to improve the lives of our students and our state?”
The more we do, the more the nation and world will know that the University of Minnesota boldly stands for excellence, access, discovery, community engagement, diversity and a global reach in an ever-competitive world.
And we will take our rightful place in the front rank of great public research universities.
Wrapped in tradition … lifted by pride … driven by our desire to fulfill our great promise … we have much work to do.
Let’s go do it together.
Thank you very much.