Letter from the dean: January-February, 2008

tom-fisher.jpgDear Colleagues,

On March 1, every college must submit to the University of Minnesota Foundation its plans for the upcoming capital campaign, the "silent phase" of which has already begun. We have had several conversations about this among the deans, department heads, and center directors, based on discussions at meetings and retreats over the last year. The Foundation has asked each college to identify no more than five themes that we will focus on in the campaign, and it has provided us with a format within which we must describe our ideas. This process has progressed to a point where we now need your input. Although the attached form has gone through two revisions already, it remains still very much a draft and open to your comments and suggestions, which you can send to me by let's say, Monday, February 25, so that we can try to incorporate your thoughts in the final document.

Not that this document will be the final word on our collegiate campaign. The Foundation will gather what each college has identified as its aspirations and then look for common themes across the University in order to define a larger, institution-wide set of campaign goals, of which ours will undoubtedly be a part. So look at this as a first step. We will have several more opportunities to clarify and hone our case statement and your input along the way -- as well as your participation in helping us identify and approach potential donors -- will be invaluable.

Capital campaigns offer us an opportunity to define what we want to become. Some have already asked me what I thought our college might be like in ten years, so let me explore that a bit with you here.

Our College in Ten Years Time

Institutions do best in campaigns when focusing on what they already do best. I see us building on our existing strengths over the next ten years, while transforming the ways in which we discover, teach, and interact. Indications of how that might happen and what that might look like already exist. We know, for example, that, as one of the most disciplinarily diverse design colleges in a major land-grant research university in a large city, we have some clear advantages over competing schools, with strong and supportive professional, corporate, construction, retail, and housing communities all around us. In ten years, I see our relationships with these communities becoming even more interactive. Global competition will demand an ever-increasing level of innovation and information for our fields to thrive, prompting a college such as ours to not only develop new knowledge in partnership with practitioners and employers, but to package and deliver it in ways that give students and professionals easy access. The research databases and digital distance learning we have begun to develop in the college, for instance, will serve our constituencies and us well in the coming decade.

The need for constant innovation and information will also transform education. Our student body, for example, will almost certainly become more generationally and geographically diverse. We will see retirees seeking knowledge from us -- and bringing knowledge to us -- in ways that will blur the distinctions we now make between "traditional" and "continuing" education. At the same time, we will deliver knowledge electronically as well as in person, in distant places as well as on campus, in discreet packages as well as in degree programs. In such an expanded educational arena, research expertise and teaching entrepreneurship will become even more important, as the economics of higher education forces us to focus on those areas in which our departments, programs, and centers have unique strengths.

The needs of the traditional student will also change dramatically over the next decade. We have already seen how mobile, wireless, high-bandwidth computing has changed the ways in which students do their work, interact with each other, and seek out the information they need. That networked way of learning will only increase, with students moving across disciplinary lines and hybridizing areas of knowledge in unexpected ways. This will challenge the notion of discreet degree programs that now have relatively little relation to each other, and will undoubtedly demand a greater amount of flexibility and connectivity than what now exists in higher education. Over the next ten years, we will probably see a flourishing of minors in every program, for example, and of interdisciplinary degrees that might involve a mix of three or four minors to create new majors we might never have imagined.

I think our disciplines will do well in this new educational world. While some of our programs will continue to have accreditation requirements to fulfill, I see a growing flexibility in how we can meet those expectations. At the same time, I think the lateral thinking and conversational learning in creative fields such as ours will increasingly become a model for other disciplines as they look for more innovative and interactive ways of teaching. The project- or place-based focus of our fields will also become more common across colleges. The Solar Decathlon exemplifies this. It provides students, faculty, and staff in several colleges and in every program in our college with a common project to which we can all contribute and through which we will all learn not only about each other's fields, but also about what a more sustainably designed environment might be like in the future. Even after this Decathlon has ended in 2009, we may need to invent other project-based initiatives as an on-going educational laboratory for ourselves.

How the Campaign Will Help Us Get There

The campaign themes we have begun to identify should help us get to where we are going. Some themes -- sustainability, digital integration, local to global outreach -- arise out of areas of existing strengths in which we can clearly make a difference as a college. These areas also tie into themes I expect to see at the University level, having to do with climate change, informatics, internationalism, and a redefining of our land-grant mission for the 21st century. Two other themes in the attached form have a more anticipatory quality: the relationship of our disciplines to the economy and to health. Here, too, we have quite a bit going on in the college that connects our work to global business innovation and to human and environmental health. But I have seen a change over the last few years that will undoubtedly grow over the next decade, in which other colleges have increasingly come to us, wanting to partner on a range of areas that affect peoples' daily lives. We now find ourselves at the very center of the experience economy and the biological century, as some have called our era, and all five themes in this draft campaign plan relate to that in some way.

Let me make one last point, so that you can get to reading and responding to the attached document. Campaigns need to focus on transformative changes to which donors will most likely respond. There are many important needs in our college that you will not see in this draft statement, ranging from student support, which will remain a priority regardless of the themes we ultimately settle on, to core teaching and research needs, which we will continue to pursue in a variety of venues ranging from the University's compact process to the college's on-going help with development and proposal-writing. But we have also tried to define the campaign themes as broadly as possible in order to allow us to seek support for faculty, staff, students, space, equipment, and programs within each area. While we won't know where we will ultimately end up as a result of this campaign, I do know that it will have a transformative effect on us and will greatly help us be, in ten years, the college we are already well on the way of becoming.