University of Minnesota professors are excellent, President Eric Kaler believes. They're also a bit too ... Minnesotan.

Kaler has been pushing against that culture, nudging faculty members to nominate themselves and their colleagues for the nation's top academic honors. "This helps drive the reputation of the University of Minnesota," Kaler told faculty and staff during a "Campus Conversation" on Tuesday.

He uses as an example the prestigious national academies. While some universities claim dozens of members in the National Academy of Engineering, for example, the University of Minnesota counts 11.

Kaler is one. He was elected in 2010 -- "one of the highest professional honors accorded an engineer," according to its website.

"It's a fabulous faculty, and they're doing wonderful things every day," said Provost Karen Hanson. "But they are not as inclined to seek for themselves and for their colleagues external recognition of that fact."

It might be Minnesota culture, Hanson said, or the simple fact that faculty members are "very, very busy." But outside recognition rewards good work and raises the profile of the university, she said. "Excellence attracts excellence."

Michael Osterholm, a U professor and infectious disease expert, agrees that "Minnesota is under-represented" in the national academies and other prestigious groups. "This tends to be an understated faculty environment," he said. "It's that Minnesota situation where you don't want to talk yourself up."

Osterholm's brimming biography includes memberships on the Council on Foreign Relations and the Institute of Medicine. Both nominations came from outside the university, he said, "so that fits the model."

Now that he's in, he promotes stellar colleagues while being careful not to be parochial. Members are prohibited from advocating for their colleagues based on their academic affiliation, he noted.

"In the end, we try to get the best people," he said. Some of them just happen to live here.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168