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State of the College 2017

September 25, 2017
Delivered remarks were based on the text below. Remarks presented as prepared for delivery. Watch the recording (57:25)

Welcome

The State of the College is a time to take a moment to pause and assess where we are as a college, our strengths, and current and upcoming challenges and opportunities. 
 
For those of you interested in more details about the 2016-17 academic year, the Roadmap 2017 Report, which we will share with donors and friends, provides a good overview of achievements over the last year. I’d also encourage you to look at the more comprehensive and detailed Roadmap Report on Progress. My blog also provides substantial specifics on issues and developments in the college. 
 
This year, with those detailed resources available to you, I will focus my remarks at a somewhat higher elevation. 
 
It’s a good time to do this—to think about our purpose, what matters to us, what makes us strong—as we are coming up on two big events: CLA’s capital campaign and the college’s 150th anniversary. 

Our Purpose

The land-grant mission of universities is too often rhetorically reduced to the teaching of mechanical or technical skills or the provision of technical or agricultural research. Those are important contributions. But this interpretation is a thin understanding of the land-grant purpose. The full vision of the land-grant system was to empower individuals in the interest of building their futures and building their communities. It was aimed at extending the learning of liberal education to a larger population in a growing country. And it was meant to be a profound boost to individual growth and community development, spreading beyond the elite strata of society the skills and knowledge that encourage civic engagement. 
 
The land-grant mission is built upon a foundation of the liberal arts and it fails without that foundation being strong. It is profoundly democratizing at its core: sharing what we in CLA would call “the liberal arts advantage” with larger segments of the population. 
 
Indeed, our CLA Constitution enshrines these points, saying that “The purpose of the College of Liberal Arts is to advance a thoughtful, knowledgeable, and engaged society.” With the land-grant idea, individuals would be transformed, but so would families, communities, and future generations, and liberal arts are at the foundational center of that work. That’s what we believe.

What Matters to Us

So how does that purpose, established in 1862, translate today?

I don’t have to explain to you that we face a great deal of discord, political unease, and the clashing of vastly different belief systems locally, nationally, and internationally.

If land-grant institutions were established to give individuals from across all walks of life the habits of mind, the toolkits, to shape their own destiny and the destiny of their communities and states, then that purpose is more relevant and more needed than ever as we navigate through tension and conflict. The core of the land-grant mission was to help citizens, careers, and communities thrive and develop. For CLA, the meaning is plain: ours is not a selfish enterprise. 

When we talk about advancing the CLA Roadmap—about relentlessly pursuing research and creative excellence; about deepening public engagement; about elevating diversity and inclusion; about having our students ready to launch into careers and life; and when we talk about becoming a destination college—our focus is on others as much as it is on ourselves. 

We don’t seek to be a destination college simply to flatter ourselves. Instead, the better we are at attracting and retaining field-shaping faculty and top students and staff; the stronger our research and creative work; the more ready our graduates; the more we include a diverse range of people and ideas, then the higher quality impact we will have. The greater the good we can do. 

We are all in the business of helping people to transform and improve their lives. That means our students and it also means our fellow staff and faculty. And it means the nonprofits, schools, government agencies, businesses, and communities with which we work. There wouldn’t be much reason to be doing what we’re doing otherwise.

In providing this service to others, our strength, our strongest asset is the kind of work we do in the liberal arts—the range of questions we ask and the diverse ways we go about exploring them. We don’t apologize for what we do in the liberal arts—we advocate it as our greatest strength.

We operate from the simple premise that the knowledge, perspective, and skills honed in a liberal arts education are a pathway to a fulfilled and engaged life. Every day, we explore questions that matter. We study the questions that drive people’s lives. That are fundamental to their individual and collective values. 

There’s not a day that goes by in the news when the questions asked by the liberal arts are not all over the front page, or homepage, of the newspaper. Through the arts, humanities, and social sciences we explore these front page issues, directly or indirectly, in a variety of ways and through a variety of methodologies and traditions. 

Our scholars—all of you in this room—explore what it means to be successful, caring, productive—what it means to be a contributing member of a community. 

And you explore how communities collectively thrive, or not. The insights of our work are particularly valuable in a time of division, conflict, and discord. Across our fields of study, we focus in our creative work, research, teaching, and engagement on the enduring and emergent questions facing individuals, communities, and societies. 

At our core, we are in the business of helping people to transform and improve their lives. That’s what we do.

The CLA Difference

Now, we can’t claim that we are the only college pursuing these goals. There are many other land-grant and liberal-arts institutions out there doing great work. Let me, however, briefly note two aspects—out of many—that set CLA apart from these other institutions on one or both measures: first, our focus on access, and second, our collaborative interdisciplinary culture

Turning first to our focus on access: 

  • CLA educates more students than any other Minnesota college, public or private
  • At the undergraduate level, nearly half of the students on the Twin Cities campus are CLA students
  • Transfer students make up 40 % of the College’s undergraduate population
  • Nearly a third of CLA students are the first in their families to attend college
  • A little under one quarter of CLA students are students of color
  • And looking across the Twin Cities campus, while we have about 45% of the undergraduates overall, we have a larger share than that of Twin Cities students who are women, students of color, American Indian, African American, Hispanic, Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, multi-racial, international, first-generation, Pell-eligible, and transfer. For example, nearly two-thirds of the American Indian students on campus are CLA students. Over half of the Chicano and Latino students on campus are CLA students. Over half of the international students on campus are CLA students. 

We are the opportunity college. 

I am pleased to report that we have been exceeding the admissions targets set for us for the past three years. This fall, for example, we are about 200 students over our target for first-year students. That’s because of the work you do. Your work, coupled with our improved communication of what we do in CLA, our great recruitment efforts led up by CLA Recruitment Coordinator Andy Gammons, and our leading-edge Career Readiness Initiative and Career Services, have set us apart.  I’d like to thank former Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Gary Oehlert, Career Readiness Coordinator Judy Anderson, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education and former Faculty Director of Career Readiness Ascan Koerner, Director of Career Services Paul Timmins, and faculty and staff throughout CLA for our tremendous progress in this area.

I mentioned our collaborative interdisciplinary culture as something else that sets us apart.

I have been deeply impressed in my time here by the depth and breadth of the interdisciplinary, collaborative culture in the college. Our scholars are working across disciplinary lines. To be clear and to underline the point: I’m a very strong believer in strong disciplines. We can’t have strong interdisciplinary activity without fundamentally strong disciplines. The two are complementary. 

It’s a very good thing that we have a half-dozen programs in the Shanghai Global top 25 program rankings. That we have over 15 departments and subfields in the US News top 25 program rankings is also a very good thing. 

It matters to me that we have our departments highly ranked, that we keep our highly-ranked programs at that level, and that we seek to move more up. We use our three-year planning process to work with departments to achieve that excellence.

But our scholars and students also cross over the silos, they’re working across the college, and they’re working across the campus. 

So our researchers—including extensively in the campus Grand Challenges research initiatives—are working with colleagues in Science and Engineering and Management; in Design and Education & Human Development; in Public Health and the Medical School; and Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and beyond. In other words, pretty much everywhere you care to look around the university. 

Both in the areas of access and interdisciplinary collaboration, we tie back to our foundation as a land-grant institution, dedicated to improving individual lives and to serving our communities. And this is important, because when our communities seek to engage with us, they don’t worry about department lines or college lines or the jurisdictions of administrative offices—they are simply looking for fruitful partnerships. 

As just two recent examples of how this interdisciplinary culture flows into public engagement, within the past few years we launched a master’s degree in human rights with the Humphrey School, drawing on CLA expertise across numerous departments, and this fall we launched a master’s degree in heritage studies and public history with the College of Design. 

The new heritage studies master’s is a great example of faculty in the college—and Professors Kat Hayes of Anthropology and American Indian Studies and Kevin Murphy of History and American Studies deserve special note here for their tireless efforts— working collaboratively on an issue that was a felt need in the community: diversifying the pipeline of heritage and museum professionals through partnering with the Minnesota Historical Society.  

The program is also a good example of how in the CLA Roadmap we've tried to lower the boundary around the campus, made it more porous so that the community can be fully engaged with our faculty and our students.
 
In CLA, we are collaborative, interdisciplinary, and committed to access and excellence. That’s who we are.

Moving Forward

So if that’s who we are, then who will we be? How will we move forward?
 
First, we’ll draw on the structural foundations that we’ve been building to help us succeed. Across the past three years we have built and reorganized our organizational infrastructure to advance our work and the CLA Roadmap. There have been significant and productive organizational changes in virtually every administrative office from Undergraduate Education to Research and Graduate Programs, from Institutional Advancement to Fiscal Administration, from Human Resources, Faculty and Academic Affairs, and Liberal Arts Technologies and Innovation Services. 
 
In addition we’ve made major structural adjustments through our departmental corridors and through the introduction of three-year departmental strategic planning. 
 
These big changes have been designed to help us serve students, faculty, and staff better—and to help us all collaborate better—and we will continue to look for ways to improve. 
 
In addition to these large changes—and to major initiatives such as increasing graduate stipends, initiating a grant fund for associate professors, our Career Readiness Initiative, and cluster hires in human rights and Islamic studies and through the RIGS Initiative, we’ve also sought to find ways to improve our organizational flexibility and nimbleness and experimentation. We’ve accomplished a good amount in that area over the past year. 
 
For example:

  • 25 small-grants were funded for initiatives in diversity and engagement, and we are currently receiving the outcome reports on those projects. 
  • Separately, Associate Dean for Social Sciences Penny Edgell provided support for three projects centered around diversity and inclusion, as well as several research seed grants: To note just one of these, a joint "pipeline" project between Sociology, Political Science, and History will seek to establish graduate recruitment relationships between CLA and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). 
  • On the Arts and Humanities side, to give two examples: former Associate Dean for Arts and Humanities Ana Paula Ferreira provided support for the Environmental Humanities Initiative which brings together humanistic scholars, artists, and teachers across a wide range of related fields, broadly motivated by concerns about the environment. And the Middle East and Islamic Studies Collective received funding to advance knowledge of the Middle East and Islamic Studies, including Arabic and the cultures and literatures of the region. 
  • The college also launched its Interdisciplinary Collaborative Workshops initiative, led by Steve Manson, Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Programs. The first set of mini-grant projects on embedded technologies, music as cultural research, and municipalism in America were announced in the spring and the next round of applications for mini-grants and full grants are arriving now. 

We will continue to work on enabling pilot and seed initiatives, and we will continue at the college office level and through the efforts of every department to further implement and advance the goals of the CLA Roadmap
 
These include, among others, the launch of a college-level diversity and inclusion committee to complement the several department-level committees; continuing the efforts to integrate learning abroad more tightly with academic majors and career readiness, an effort led by Professor Michal Kobialka of Theatre Arts and Dance; and exploring additional ways to enhance the college’s research and creative environment for faculty, students, and staff. 
 
We we will also prepare ourselves to be ready to implement implement welcome and major changes such as fully funded sabbatical semesters and multi-year P&A appointments, and to find ways to better support faculty research travel. 
 
With this progress on the books, how will we move forward?
 
Earlier I mentioned the upcoming capital campaign and the 150th anniversary. Both of these are great opportunities for the college to reflect on where we are and more importantly position ourselves for the future. 
 
We are planning an array of events to celebrate this anniversary across the course of the 2018-19 academic year. I thank Professors Ana Forcinito of Spanish and Portuguese, John Freeman of Political Science, and Joanie Smith of Theatre Arts and Dance for leading the planning on the academic and scholarly side of the celebration. 
 
We are also soon to launch the CLA Campaign, Shattering Expectations, in November.
 
You might be wondering why it’s called Shattering Expectations. 
 
For three years, we have been working to advocate for the liberal arts, to be on offense and not defense, to show how our work is central and key to the major questions of our time, to make clear that the liberal arts are an outstanding foundation for fulfilling and meaningful lives and career paths. We have been debunking the negative narratives about the liberal arts. That work provides the foundation to help inspire our donors and friends to see what the liberal arts can be and can do. 
 
We have been shattering expectations of what liberal arts education, research, and engagement is and can be. We have been shattering expectations and preconceived notions about the College of Liberal Arts. We have been shattering expectations about what our students, community partners, and stakeholders can achieve when we work together. 
 
You may have seen the wonderful Shattering Expectations video. I can tell you that our alumni and friends respond so enthusiastically to the video, and are both moved and inspired by what it conveys about the liberal arts. 
 
The campaign builds directly on the work faculty and staff across the college are doing to advance the goals of the CLA Roadmap. Some details include: 

  • We have a goal of $150 million, including $65m for research, innovation, and engagement; $50m for career readiness and student support; and $35m for diversity, access, and inclusion.
  • Within the research, innovation, and engagement goal would be endowed chairs, professorships, and seed grants, enabling faculty to explore promising ideas and compete for large external grants, and generate findings that improve lives.
  • WIthin the career readiness and student support goal are new scholarships and fellowships to recruit the brightest minds to Minnesota, support for the Career Readiness Initiative, and providing access to experiential learning opportunities including internships, undergraduate research, and learning abroad.
  • Within the inclusiveness, access, and diversity goal are need-based scholarships, fellowships, and transfer student scholarships, ensuring that promising students have access to a world-class CLA education, and support for research and programming in this area.
  • Each department is also developing its own set of funding priorities in line with these goals. 
  • And we are developing white papers to support specific investment opportunities such as a social science research commons; a humanities engagement hub; coordinated activity across the Arts Quarter; an international research institute, with a concept developed by Professor Ron Krebs of Political Science and Evelyn Davidheiser, Assistant Dean for International Programs and Director of the Institute for Global Studies, in consultation with faculty and staff across the college; the Career Readiness Initiative; and more.  

You’ll be hearing much more about the campaign in the weeks and months to come. That’s where we’re going.

Conclusion

As I conclude, let me state that I firmly believe that there could not be a time when the liberal arts are more critically relevant. In this age of— 

  • An explosion of the modes and volume of communication
  • Dynamic transformations in the economy, polity, and society 
  • Technology changing the nature of our lives and raising new questions and challenges
  • Complex challenges that are facing societies and individuals in our country and around the world; and 
  • The world becoming ever more linked globally and internationally

— the subject matter, the questions, and the methodologies of the liberal arts are vital and needed. 

And we know from employers that the kind of mindset and skill set we develop in the liberal arts is highly sought after in the knowledge-based, creative economy. 

Recent studies have noted the attractiveness of liberal arts skills across the tech sector and as an advantage in a more automated economy. 

I would be remiss, however, not to note that it is a time of challenges facing higher education as well, and we can’t hide from those. A few examples include: 

  • we continue to confront a negative narrative about the liberal arts and life and career preparation
  • state financial support is not likely to grow substantially
  • there are some indications of declining public trust
  • numerous budgetary challenges at U colleges and campuses
  • increasing sensitivity, including political sensitivity, to tuition increases and the accompanying question of student debt
  • fewer students of traditional college age on the horizon in Minnesota and surrounding states
  • technology is changing teaching modes and we have to keep up—this development provides both challenges and opportunities. 

All of these issues pose challenges that we all must confront. In the near term, we are prioritizing investments in our Roadmap goals and our academic mission, but these have to be sustainable in the long term. We have invested to push and accelerate progress on our goals. We are also making judicious use of our carry forward reserves, but that can’t continue indefinitely.

Let me say one final thing by way of a challenge and opportunity. CLA comprises a significant proportion of the U’s students, faculty, staff. It is our job, our responsibility, to drive a University of Minnesota tone valuing diverse backgrounds, viewpoints, and identities. We must lead by example. That leadership starts in every department and unit, throughout the college, and across campus, and it’s on each and every one of us. Given our size, we play a key role in driving a university culture that deeply values inclusiveness and diversity in all respects. It’s our job and our opportunity.    

Those of you in this room do the work that will help us succeed. 
 
You’ll prepare a new generation to address the world’s toughest problems with empathy and imagination, and to lead with curiosity and compassion. 
 
You’ll train a new generation of scholars, business leaders, community advocates, artists, and innovators. 
 
You’ll support career counselors, advisors, and mentors to help students translate their academic interests into professional opportunities. 
 
You’ll cultivate a more vibrant and inclusive on-campus community and you will build a campus with porous borders that works collaboratively with our external partners. 
 
You’ll make discoveries that advance global perspectives and grounded solutions. 
 
Your work will ensure a bright future for CLA and our communities as we launch into the next 150 years. 
 
I am immensely proud of the role CLA and all of our faculty and staff play in defending and advancing these vital values. The state of our college is strong. 
 
Our job together is to advocate for the liberal arts and create the understanding that the questions pursued by the liberal arts are going to be at the core of the future evolution of the economy, the political world, and the social world.  
 
Thank you for all you do for the College of Liberal Arts.