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‘Driving Change’ panel: Rolnick is a ‘leader as illuminator’

Art Rolnick put an economic lens on existing studies and then thrust the findings into the limelight.

Art Rolnick

MinnPost has assembled a panel of leadership experts and scholars, who are rotating in commenting on each of the examples of leadership profiled in our series, “Driving Change: A Lens on Leadership.” Today, graduate students from the University of Minnesota’s leadership program comment on aspects of leadership presented in “Making the case for early ed, Art Rolnick has had ‘enormous impact.’ “

Whether or not that was the intent, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel defined distinct leadership roles while describing Art Rolnick’s contribution to the cause of early-childhood education.

Rolnick hadn’t done original research on the issue but instead put an economic lens on existing studies and then thrust the findings into the limelight. 

“Sometimes what you’ve got are people who create the data, and then people who illuminate the data where others haven’t done a great job,” said Emanuel, a University of Pennsylvania bioethics professor and White House advisor.

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Think of it as the leader-illuminator model.

That notion resonated with a team of graduate students who met to discuss the leadership qualities presented in MinnPost’s profile of Rolnick. The students are from the Center for Integrative Leadership at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs

“There is a lot of data out there, especially in the academic world, that gets buried in journals and PhD theses and never sees the light of day,” said Amelia Brunelle.

Translating those buried research treasures in a way that speaks to pressing current issues is a leadership feat in and of itself.

“There is a great need for more leaders as illuminators,” Brunelle said.

The need reaches far beyond education. Increasingly, researchers across multiple disciplines are pressed to communicate findings with broader audiences, said Nirjhar Dutta, who is studying public health with an eye toward medical school.

Often, it has taken up to 20 years for health-related research findings to be translated into benefits for patients. A movement is under way not only to shorten that lag time but also systematically review and summarize previous research, Dutta said.

“There is a new understanding that we can’t just mindlessly try to find new information without taking a step back and trying to illuminate what’s been learned from all of this effort,” he said.

Bridged two worlds of research, policy

It is easy to say that leaders should translate esoteric research findings for the general public. Doing it is difficult.

There is a vast difference between the cultures of the research world and the political circles where public policy is decided, said Chendong Pi.

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Rolnick bridged the two worlds by coming up with a sound data-based argument and then translating it into policy proposals.

“It is very important to have the data, to have the numbers in order to push a thing onto a political agenda,” Pi said. “A pure moral appeal is not enough. We needed to have the data too, to have the empirical evidence. And Art Rolnick was great at providing this.”

It was more than a matter of factual evidence. Rolnick pushed his data with a certain sprezzatura – making his economic arguments seem a natural and easy fit in the public arena. It’s a knack he credits to Walter Heller, who led the economics department at the University of Minnesota where Rolnick earned his PhD. Heller, who was an economic advisor to two presidents, stressed the importance of real-world applications for economics.

A rare skill

But it’s the rare leader who can cross the academic-public divide with true ease, Brunelle said.

Broadly speaking, academic researchers see the political arena as “too muddled by uninformed voters and party politics and special-interest money for research findings to really make a difference,” she said.

It is far more comfortable, she said, to stay in an academic bubble and create knowledge for peers who will respect your challenges and the rigor of your methods.

“But if we don’t have leaders who are willing to cross those boundaries, we don’t really change anything,” she said. “We’ve just looked at something. We haven’t moved it at all.”

In defense of academics, Dutta said many concerns about thrusting research into the capriciousness of the public arena are well founded. In an academic environment, researchers must take care not to overstate their findings or to draw overly broad generalizations, he said. The same isn’t always true in the politically charged environment where public policy is decided.   

That said, there is an urgent need for informed leaders who can honor research standards while also advocating for the underlying cause, he said.

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Different dimensions

In that cause, Rolnick effectively leveraged his position as research director for the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis to advocate for disadvantaged children, the students said.

“At the Center for Integrative Leadership, we talk about the importance of coming out of our traditional departments and divisions,” Dutta said. “None of the problems we face in today’s world can be solved by one particular tool or one discipline.”

In other words, the cause for disadvantaged kids was not a matter for traditional children’s advocates alone.

“Other people had to play a role,” Dutta said. “To me, this is a perfect example of what the world needs. . . . Our complex problems need complex solutions.”

In this case, Rolnick added an economic dimension to the problem, arguing that investments in early education returned hefty dividends.

“He was saying that in the long run this makes money,” Brunelle said. “It can be really powerful when you combine that logic with the emotional appeal of doing the right thing. In the policy realm, there are always people who will choose the emotional side. There are always people who choose the logical side. If you can appeal to both, that is real power.”

Rolnick’s position at the Fed, she said, gave him the standing to say, “My background is in mathematics and logic, so you can believe me on that part – and it’s also the right thing to do.”

Courage to take a stand

I didn’t ask the students whether they agreed with the full range of Rolnick’s arguments: his opposition to funding professional sports facilities and his insistence that Minnesota is making a tragic tradeoff by opting to spend scarce taxpayer dollars for stadiums rather than for early education.

But courage is an integral part of leadership. And we did talk about the courage it takes for Rolnick to stand up in the stadium debate against powerful politicians, many of whom are his allies in the drive for education funding.

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“I think he is courageous not only because he is taking on his friends or the public officials but also Minnesotans who are fans of the Vikings,” Pi said. “He is going against the people who love sports, and value these teams.”

Certainly, Rolnick is making Minnesotans – politicians and the general public alike – uncomfortable with their assertions that they can have their stadiums and still do the right thing by needy kids.

America could use more straight talk on a range of issues, Dutta said.

Persuasion backed by solid data

Rolnick is particularly effective at shaking common assumptions because his arguments are backed by solid data.

“We are on a limited budget,” Dutta said. “It’s a massive budget because this is America, but it still is limited. So the core of Art Rolnick’s argument is that we have to make the best use of limited resources. … He takes the lead in saying that we get the highest return from investment in early childhood, and so that’s where you should invest the most.”

Pi wondered whether Rolnick loses ground by refusing to meet the opposition part way.

“The policy field is about persuasion,” Pi said. “It’s about using empirical evidence to persuade folks as to what works and what doesn’t work. But in the political field it is also about bargaining, and negotiation. … He is very good with the persuasion side, but not so good with the bargaining, with giving away something in order to get something that he wants.”

Even the negotiating process, though, can be advanced when one side has a leader staking a strong position, Brunelle said. That person can empower others to make change even if it doesn’t reach the full range of the vision.

“There are roles where someone needs to think really big …  while there also are ways to start small and reach for those big thoughts,” she said. “You definitely need the leader to set the big vision.”      

Driven by the cause

Rolnick didn’t have to take on this cause. At age 67, he could have eased into a comfortable retirement, sitting on a few corporate boards and giving speeches.

In fact, Rolnick said he’s surprised to find himself in something of a second career as an advocate for little kids.

Brunelle, though, wasn’t surprised.

“Leadership usually is something that people take on voluntarily because they are passionate about a cause,” she said.

Some people – politicians, especially – aspire to be leaders regardless of the issues at hand. Rolnick aspired to make something happen, not necessarily to be identified as the leader of a cause. That is a distinction with a very large difference, the students said.

“Once you are really passionate about something, you become an advocate for that cause,” Dutta said. “If it’s a good cause, people start gathering around you and make you into a leader.”

Dutta compared Rolnick’s experience with that of the culturally influential singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, who performed with passion but seemed reluctant to stand as an icon for his cause.

“Back in the ‘60s, Dylan was just a musician, but he came to be seen as a representative of his generation for many of the civil-rights issues he was writing about and singing about,” Dutta said. “Art Rolnick was passionate about childhood education, and people gathered around him and made him a leader.”