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University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler

Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

President Kaler: A good time to renew your view of the U

  • Article by: ERIC KALER
  • July 2, 2012 - 8:12 PM

Two anniversaries arrived with the month of July. Sunday marked a year for me as leader of the University of Minnesota. And yesterday was the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, which established the land-grant universities that are the backbone of America's great public higher-education systems.

Signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, in the depths of the Civil War, the Morrill Act established the missions that still make the university unique in this state -- world-class teaching and research; a focus on agriculture, engineering and the liberal arts, and a commitment to providing access to higher education for all. The act remains a remarkable testament to a leader who had the courage to invest in the future in a time of darkness.

When I was privileged to return to Minnesota last year, I knew of the role of the university in the state and the impact it has. But after a year, I admit to a certain frustration. Too few Minnesotans understand how the U impacts every one of Minnesota's 87 counties. The everyday noise of pundits and pontificators -- and sometimes, frankly, our own missteps -- can distract from the profound common good the U brings to this state.

In simple numbers: For every state dollar invested in us, we return $13.20 to Minnesota's economy. As for the common good, consider what the U has done during the last few months alone:

• As researchers in our Biomedical Discovery District zero in on cures for diabetes, Alzheimer's and childhood diseases, scientists at our School of Public Health and Medical School discovered an enzyme that can reduce the risk of heart disease.

• Our professor of creative writing Charles Baxter won the Rea Award for the Short Story, a prize that has previously gone to the likes of John Updike, Ann Beattie and Richard Ford.

• As scholars in our College of Education and Human Development researched the effects of deployment on military families, students in our School of Social Work strove to better understand and stem domestic violence in Minnesota.

• A new startup company -- one of 30 hatched in the past five years with discoveries from U labs -- worked to find a cure for a mysterious and deadly infection.

Last month we set our budget for the next fiscal year. Despite state cuts totaling more than 20 percent during the past three years, we will increase tuition for undergraduate residents by 3.5 percent -- the lowest increase in 12 years, and a smaller percentage than most of our peers nationally. And our spending will grow at less than half the rate of inflation.

Through it all, we will continue to reinvent ourselves as the university's mission evolves, just as it has during the past 150 years of the Morrill Act.

In the old days, agriculture meant feeding Minnesota. Today it means feeding the world and protecting the planet's food supply from disease and determined terrorists; our federally funded National Center for Food Protection and Defense does just that.

The mechanical arts used to mean basic engineering. Today the field includes biochemical engineering and nanotechnology -- disciplines that produce new products, new companies and new jobs. Our addition of 1,000 new spaces for students at the U in science, technology, engineering, math and nursing will help meet the needs of students and Minnesota employers.

The U is taking an important role in Minnesota's fight to close its educational achievement gap, marshaling our experts and resources statewide to help tackle this urgent challenge.

The whole of the University of Minnesota is greater than the sum of its thousands of moving parts. In Minnesota, "above average" is important, but with apologies to Garrison Keillor (class of '66), this university is excellent -- and far better than many realize. As one measure, our researchers make us the eighth-largest public research university in the country as measured by our ability to win federal research grants.

Take a quick look for yourself. To catch a glimpse of the university's land grant legacy, watch a short video at www.landgrant150.umn.edu. And for a colorful look back at my first 12 months in office, see the slideshow at z.umn.edu/yeartoremember.

In the coming year, we will continue to excel, spurred on still by the spirit of the Morrill Act and by Lincoln's words: "I view education as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in."

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Eric Kaler is president of the University of Minnesota.

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