Minnesota is in the process of finding and selecting a leader for the University of Minnesota. We are doing so at a critical time – when the fabric of both our democracy and our planet are under threat. As the presidential search advisory committee finishes up a position profile, it is worth pausing to reflect on what the University of Minnesota means for Minnesota, and what Minnesota needs from the university and its leadership.
We need a university president who understands the challenges of this time and recognizes the potential the university and Minnesota have to address them. We need a president with a vision that combines these challenges and potential and enlists all of us in realizing that vision. Doing so takes a lot of skill. Let’s take these things in turn.
Reweaving the fabrics of our democracy and our planet is the challenge of this time. Distrust of institutions and each other; deep disparities; and attacks on science, a free press, and fair elections all contribute to the sense that our democratic governance institutions are not up to the tasks at hand. One of the biggest tasks at hand is making sure people thrive on a healthy, climate-safe planet. The summer of 2018 – with its heat waves, fires, and hurricanes – felt like a turning point in seeing the impacts of climate change. If it feels like we live consequential times, it’s because we do. And our land-grant university needs to help.
The potential – of the University and Minnesota
As Minnesota’s only major research university, the University of Minnesota plays a unique role. Through its land-grant mission of research, education, and engagement, the university serves as a foundation of Minnesota’s quality of life, strong economy, and collective governance. It is an essential partner for Minnesotans as we navigate challenges small and large.
The University of Minnesota is a complex, dispersed power place. It is a collection of multiple organizations, including various colleges and medical, business, law, veterinary, public policy, and public health schools. It includes a hospital, a multimillion-dollar sports operation, and multiple museums. Campuses are spread across the state. All of this is governed with distributed systems, including a University Senate and a Board of Regents selected by the state Legislature. A new president has the opportunity to rally this community around shared purpose and vision when many of us are feeling our individual efforts are not up to the tasks at hand. I’d love to see the many smart people at the university asking the question of how they help strengthen our democracy — and our planet. The university’s organization and governance make this a difficult leadership challenge. But given the state of democracy and the planet, it is worth trying.
The university presidency is one of hardest leadership roles in Minnesota. The ability to bring a complex organization together around shared purpose is essential. Also essential is the ability respond to inevitable, but not predictable, crises in ways that reflect university values of respect for all people and academic integrity and freedom. Discussions of whether a new president should come from outside of the academy or within it have already started, and I see arguments for both. I think the better questions to ask are: Has this person demonstrated a willingness to risk trying out different approaches to addressing complex, collective problems? Does he or she have the skill to follow through effectively?
At the end of this search, there will be a new University of Minnesota president. Our focus now is rightly on this one leader, but we also need to ask ourselves what leadership role each of us has through this time of transition and possibility. The university president will only succeed if many are part of their success. I hope this new president challenges Minnesota in ways that make us uncomfortable and enable us as a state to do more and be better. It’s our job as Minnesotans and university supporters to push through that discomfort to the great possibilities. In other words, we need a university president who helps us rise to the challenges we face. And we must rise with the best each of us and Minnesota has to offer.
Kate Knuth is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota studying transformation and sustainability. She previously worked as staff at the university and served three terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives.
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