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‘The challenge of change’

As children, many of us heard the story of a young Dutch boy who stuck his finger into a tiny hole in the sea wall that protected his village, and single-handedly held back a cold and raging sea.

Editor’s note: Here are excerpts from the annual State of the University Address delivered earlier this month by University of Minnesota President Robert H. Bruininks. The complete address is available on the university’s website.

As children, many of us heard the story of a young Dutch boy who stuck his finger into a tiny hole in the sea wall that protected his village, and single-handedly held back a cold and raging sea. The story not only speaks to the courage and ability of one person to make a difference, but it also illustrates the uneasy truce between the Dutch people and the waters around them.

Today, a fundamental cultural shift is underway in the Netherlands. Anticipating rising sea levels in the coming decades, the Dutch government and people are beginning to consider a new relationship with the sea — a relationship in which the waters aren’t viewed as a threat, but as a natural feature of the environment and a catalyst for innovation. Instead of building higher walls, they are working to relocate farms from anticipated flood plains and developing waterproof basements and floating homes. In the process, they are demonstrating how challenges that initially seem insurmountable can spark creativity.

The Dutch are meeting the challenge of change with a can-do approach that brings out the very best in people. You don’t change centuries of cultural identity and public policy overnight. It is a gradual and often contentious process, even in the face of urgent need. But it is possible.

In recent years, the university and state of Minnesota have been faced with a similar choice — a choice between holding back the flood with so many well-placed fingers or redefining ourselves in a way that acknowledges that the environment is changing around us. Our challenge is to evolve in a way that builds on our historic strengths and public responsibilities.

I believe the university is meeting that challenge every day, but we cannot simply tread water. The state of the university is strong, but the university is not an island. We are subject to changing tides and fortunes like anyone else. We must continue to propel ourselves forward with bold strokes toward our goal.

Five attributes of a world-class university
We’ve accomplished something truly remarkable in the past three years — we’ve established a goal and strategic framework that are now familiar across the university system, and that inform our actions every day. Our goal — to become one of the top three public research universities in the world, with an equivalent standard of excellence for our coordinate campuses — is well known, but sometimes misunderstood. There are those who believe that “top three” is not achievable. Others feel that our focus on research compromises our commitment to educating and serving the citizens of the state. In my view, neither is the case.

First of all, we should never ask the question, “Have we set the bar low enough?” That is a recipe for mediocrity. With this goal, we are consciously sending the message that the university has the highest aspirations and will not be satisfied with average results. And, if we aspire to be among the best universities at sharing new knowledge, shouldn’t we also strive for excellence in creating that knowledge? Our students benefit from working with faculty at the cutting edge of their fields. They gain not only a deep reservoir of knowledge, but also a deeper understanding of how that knowledge is created and refined.

Our goal is specific, measurable, aspirational, and attainable. Our challenge is to translate our goal into meaningful attributes that establish a culture of excellence and empowerment — of shared values and personal responsibility.

Last spring I shared the notion that we do not aspire to rank, but to stature. But if “top three” is a question of stature, it makes sense to ask, “What are the characteristics of such a university?” I believe great universities share common attributes that are readily visible and highly valued — attributes that cut across the four pillars we identified to support transformative change at the university.

A commitment to excellence

First, a truly great university is committed to excellence in everything it does — from education, research, and outreach, to the management of public resources.

Second, as stewards of knowledge and developers of human capital, the best universities are always driven to discover. Our faculty continue to amaze, not only in our classrooms and laboratories, but also on the world stage. The work of these great scholars — and so many others statewide — contributes to our economic vitality and quality of life — but more importantly, it inspires new generations of leaders and creative thinkers to imagine what’s possible. Inspiration by itself is not enough, however.

Third, an outstanding university must also be focused on results. Today, for example, many universities are committing to the principles of sustainability. Few of these universities — and virtually none of our size and scope — have the history of results that we do. Each of our coordinate campuses continues to pursue its own strategic initiatives and raise the bar for the system in the process.

Our commitment to public service is manifested in the fourth attribute of a world-class University: economic vitality. This area represents our greatest challenge and opportunity. In making the case for public support, we must be true to our roots. We are Minnesota’s only research and land-grant university. This distinction carries with it tremendous public responsibilities, not only in terms of discovery, but also with regard to affordability, service, and sound financial management.

The tradition of strong state support we have enjoyed in Minnesota is being reaffirmed today at our Capitol. We are optimistic that state leaders will approve $135 million in bonding for University of Minnesota capital projects across the state, and $233 million in essential investment to support the Minnesota Biomedical Research Program. This program will create new jobs and economic opportunity for our state. The initiative enjoys bipartisan support in both chambers of the legislature, as well as the support of the governor.

A vision beyond politics
Our political leaders have recognized a long-term vision for a prosperous Minnesota — a vision that we share, and that is beyond politics. For nearly 160 years, our policymakers have considered the university to be one of Minnesota’s most important investments. I want to thank our current leaders for their support, and assure them that this investment in the university will generate tremendous returns for our state.

But the challenge remains. In order to secure Minnesota’s economic future, we must find new ways to stabilize and strengthen university funding while ensuring affordability and accountability. We need a new approach to financing our future — a principled approach based upon clear priorities, predictable outcomes, and a strong partnership with the state, one that supports a long-term vision for our future.

With the state of Minnesota facing significant financial challenges, such an approach necessarily starts on our campuses. I believe we must solve many of our own problems ourselves, by awakening our entrepreneurial spirit and by using existing resources more effectively. We must constantly examine our own cost structures to make sure we realize the maximum return for every dollar.

Expand commitment to affordability
We also must restate and expand our commitment to affordability for students from all walks of life. With a sluggish economy and rising costs for everything from fuel to healthcare, middle-income families bear the brunt of any increase in tuition. As a result, we must strive to create a consistent and substantial level of scholarship and grant support for all middle-income Minnesota students, just as we have for low-income students.

Fifth and finally, a world-class university is accountable to its stakeholders. Public support for education at all levels is increasingly tied to performance. We are called to be responsible stewards of public resources and the public trust.

These five attributes of a world-class university — committed to excellence, driven to discover, focused on results, economically vital, and accountable to our stakeholders — provide a cultural context for decision-making in each of our daily roles.

Of course, transformative change is never easy. It takes time, resources, and the perseverance of the entire university community. We must not simply value the progress of our students, or the success of our alumni, or the results of our research. Instead, we must first and foremost value each other. Each of us plays a critical role in the future of this University and this state — and we should take great pride in each other and the work we do here. I want to thank all of you for your hard work and dedication. I know this transformation continues to be a struggle, and that the vision isn’t always clear from where you’re standing.

From where I stand, the case for change is this: The tide is rising on all sides. We can plug the holes we see, and pray for the flood to retreat, or welcome the water and rise with it. It is my hope that, for the state of Minnesota and this great university, we will choose to rise — and continue to seek the bright horizon.

Want to add your voice?

If you’re interested in joining the discussion by writing a Community Voices article, email Susan Albright at salbright [at] minnpost [dot] com.