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President Kaler’s remarks at Discovery Showcase

University of Minnesota President Eric W. Kaler, Ph.D., gave this address at the Minnesota Medical Foundation’s Discovery Showcase on Wednesday, October 26, 2011.

“I know I am here to deliver a speech, but after nearly four months on this incredible job as the University of Minnesota’s President, I’m getting closer and closer to speechless.

When, like tonight, I see the thrilling advances and innovations that our faculty and researchers produce, I’m at a loss for words.

Spectacular? A good word.

Breath-taking? To be sure.

Life-saving? Definitely.

Futuristic? Well, the future at our Academic Health Center is now.

In some ways, the power of the science is even somewhat emotional: knowing that the work our physicians and scientists do here could, some day, cure or save the lives of a loved one, a grand daughter, a son, a mother.

Surprised? Well, not really. Not any more.

It seems that just about every day I wander somewhere throughout the University of Minnesota system, from this enormous Twin Cities campus to Crookston, from Morris to Rochester, and learn something new and inspiring about the U.

Of course, our health sciences have long been a centerpiece for innovation. From the pioneering of open heart surgery to the fight against AIDS, from bone marrow transplants to the groundbreaking work we’re doing right now in heart disease, Alzheimer’s and diabetes … we are a global power.

But sometimes we’re too darn bashful about how good we are.

We’ve got to stop that! No more being bashful.

I spoke yesterday to the Governor’s Job Summit, to about 700 of the state’s leading business, labor, government, academic and non-profit leaders.

Afterwards, someone told one of our staff that they enjoyed my speech, but said something like: “But, boy, he was pretty forceful. That wasn’t exactly Minnesota Nice. He really made the place sound great.”

Well, duh, you bet I do.

Our story is a great story. It is a collection of wonderful stories.

Take the area of the health sciences.

The University awards 90 percent of all science, technology, engineering and math PhD.’s in the state, 85 percent of all M.D. degrees, and 100 percent of dentistry, pharmacy and veterinary medicine degrees.

I am committed to excellence in everything the University of Minnesota does. And when it comes to excellence, I know of no great research university without a great medical school, without great health sciences.

But, as great as we are, we must have a world-class medical school that is more highly ranked.

It is critical to the University, to the health care system and to the citizens of the state that we continue to produce the next generation of high quality health professionals.

One of my priorities as President of the University of Minnesota is to return the Medical School to national prominence.

Clearly, we can do that. We will need your help, but I am committed to moving us again to the very top tier of excellence by pursuing investment in research, investing in new technology, and continuing to recruit and retain the best faculty members and students.

The interdisciplinary research focus of the Biomedical Discovery District is a spectacular example of the innovation necessary for breakthroughs, and of how partnership between the University, the state, and the private sector can ensure Minnesota is a leader in biomedical science.

This investment in the Medical School is critical, but resources are scarce. I am committed to fully exploring stronger partnerships with businesses, foundations and private donors to help us support the research and clinical endeavors that are essential to our future success.

Undergraduates and the freshman class

Let me turn to another great story at the U, the strengthening of undergraduate education, producing the sorts of students who will go on to our top-ranked graduate and professional schools.

Let’s be honest: 15 or 20 years ago, the undergraduate experience here was an after-thought. We know from alumni surveys that people who went to college at the U felt disengaged, and that was reflected in poor retention rates and awful graduation rates.

That has changed dramatically. Very dramatically.

Take Sam Schreiner of Lino Lakes.

I had lunch with some students in our Honors Program recently, and he was there. A senior, he’s in the marching band, has spent two years in the space physics department evaluating satellite data, has studied abroad in China and has already been named a prestigious Astronaut Scholar, a grant given by former astronauts.

Yes, he’s a rocket scientist, and he’s our rocket scientist.

Then there was Erin Diamond, a sophomore from a small town near—I’m afraid to say—Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Erin started doing research as a freshman in the Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences, is currently working on research on autistic language processing and is being trained as an MRI operator.

These are spectacular students, future proud alums of the U and future employees of yours.

Maybe even future employers of yours!

Two special students? Sure, but our entire incoming freshman class is totally special. It is, by all measures, the best qualified group of first year students in U history.

40,000 applicants. 5,378 enrolled.

Highest ACT scores ever. Most National Merit Scholars ever, and, we believe, the most National Merit Scholars among public universities in the Big Ten.

That’s not National Merit finalists or semi-finalists. That’s Scholars.

If the U ever was a safety school, it’s not anymore. It’s an aspirational school. It’s a school that is a treasure, and absolutely worthy of our investment.

Just two weeks ago we announced that we are going to grow our undergraduate enrollment by 1,000 students, many in the critical areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM, and nursing. These are the graduates that will feed Minnesota’s economic vitality—our life science industries.

And these are the graduates that will provide the future innovations we will make in medical research; transforming our children’s definition of quality health care.

We are responding to employer and student demand. We are responding to the needs of the state and it’s health system.

From 2005 to 2011, applications to our College of Science & Engineering and the College of Biological Sciences rose by more than 200 percent. As we increase the number of students, we are increasing the standards for admission.

But it’s not only about the hard sciences.

Our students are the top young communicators graduating in Minnesota, accountants, social workers, political scientists, Spanish and Chinese language majors, and dancers. You name it.

This is not just a University story. It’s a Minnesota story.

Our selectivity is not coming at the expense of Minnesota students. We’re not turning down Minnesota students in favor of out-of-state or international students.

This year, about 64 percent of our freshmen graduated from a Minnesota high school and that percentage has pretty much held steady over the past decade.

But we also bring students from other states and across the globe. We plan to continue that trend and increase somewhat students from other states, which grows diversity of all kinds.

I am telling our story where ever and when ever I get a chance, and it’s resonating.

This week alone I’ve spoken to the Minnesota High Tech Association, the Governor’s Job Summit, the Minnesota Manufacturers Summit and at the dedication of a new, exciting Wind energy initiative at our UMore Park facility in Rosemount.

Our teaching, research and community engagement missions as the state’s only land-grant university carry our footprint to all of those constituencies.

Why a research university?

But as you’ve seen tonight, innovation and discovery are what drive us as a world-class research university. We create knowledge. As you’ve seen tonight, we create the future.

Last year, we received more than $800 million in external research funding, eighth among all public universities in the nation.

Why should you care about having a research university in your backyard?

Here’s why:

A research university delivers the inventions that make Minnesota work, that contribute to the success of Fortune 500 companies, small businesses, medical device giants and biomedical start-ups.

Our research University is also the cradle of creative thought in the arts and humanities. This makes Minnesota and the Twin Cities a cultural magnet within our region, and within the nation.

We bring great minds and vibrant people to the state, who study here, then work here, raise families here and do great things here.

Today, in labs just a short walk from here, we are investigating food safety, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, cancer, and childhood illnesses of all kinds.

And clearly, we are fighting and curing heart disease.

Can we guarantee that yet another breakthrough—like a heart bypass procedure or pacemaker—will be developed here?

I don’t know, but I do know, as you heard tonight, breakthroughs are being made right now on this campus, and many more are around the corner.

You met some of our spectacular innovators tonight—they deserve our support.

I can guarantee you this: If we don’t invest, if we don’t attract and retain the best scientists, if we don’t recruit and support the best young investigators, we absolutely will not discover new things.

Instead, we will wither as a University. We will decline as a state.

Principles of the Kaler administration

Let me quickly outline for you key principles of my administration and my agenda.

First, excellence.

I will demand excellence in everything that we do.

We must be at the top tier of U.S. public research universities. I want us in the conversation with Berkeley, Michigan, North Carolina and UCLA. I want us to be known across the state and nation as a game-changing, global university for the 21st century.

Second, access.

Even as we work to attract academically exceptional students like Sam and Erin, we must also strive to keep the U accessible to all qualified Minnesota students, regardless of their family income. This is difficult during a time of diminishing state investment. Still, increasing financial aid and limiting tuition increases must be a priority.

Third, diversity.

Our commitment to access must promote diversity among our student body. We especially need to work with our K-12 system to ensure that their students are prepared for the rigor of the U.

We must work with our K-12 system to close the alarming decline in science and math teaching and learning, and the deplorable achievement gap between white students and children of color. The U must lead that effort.

Fourth, of course, is research, which is a key priority. Our investments in our research enterprise drive a high rate of return.

Governor Dayton spoke at my inaugural last month. He tossed out a remarkable fact.

He said that the University of Minnesota’s annual economic impact on the state of Minnesota is equal to the combined impact of all eight research universities in the Boston metropolitan area, including Harvard, MIT and Boston University.

I was sitting right next to him. Frankly, I said, “That sounds great, governor, but that cannot be true!”

So, we checked.

According to a 2003 study done by a Boston consulting firm—a hometown team—the economic impact of all those schools was about $7 billion annually.

Last year, our impact was estimated at $8.6 billion. That’s pretty impressive.

Gov. Dayton put that statistic into perspective by saying, “My father often told me: ‘If you have all of your eggs in one basket, you better take mighty good care of that basket.’ ”

We are the state’s only top-tier research university.

We all need to take a little bit better care of our “basket.”

That’s especially true as the state disinvests in the University. When I first came here as a graduate student in 1978, the state supported 43 percent of the University’s budget. Today, that support sits at 18 percent.

That is why another important plank of all that we do must center on making sure the University operates efficiently. To address this, we will evaluate all that we do. If programs or departments are second rate, they simply won’t survive.

We don’t have the luxury of mediocrity.

Philanthropy/advocacy

And that is why another key principle and effort must be in philanthropy.

I have been meeting with business leaders, potential donors, and some of you, to encourage increased financial support for the U. Private support is profoundly important, especially as we face public disinvestment in higher education and the resulting rise in tuition.

Philanthropy will not, and should not, replace public investment. And I will not give up on clearly articulating the role of our state and federal government in supporting public higher education. But philanthropy plays a pivotal role in building on the foundation of public investment.

Philanthropy is what will transform us from very good to truly excellent.

Finally, advocacy is another part of all that I will do.

I will tirelessly work to tell the U’s incredible story and to rally our supporters and alumni far and wide, and especially now as the Legislative session approaches.

I will do that tonight and tomorrow in Duluth and Friday at our College of Science and Engineering’s annual awards event, and Monday at the Burnsville Rotary and Tuesday at the St. Cloud Rotary. And on and on…

But I can’t do it alone. I need your help. I need you to tell your neighbors, your elected officials, your co-workers about the great things happening at the University of Minnesota.

I need you to tell friends at your next dinner party about the spectacular innovations and devices you saw here tonight.

Don’t be like me.

Don’t be speechless.

Enthusiastically spread the word.

Driven To Discover

Now, let’s pause for a word from our sponsor … .

Are the videos ready?

I want to share with you two new commercial spots we’ve developed as part of our ongoing Driven To Discover campaign. We’ve focused this year on the student experience.

One shows the evolution of a dance student, from rehearsal room to stage.

The other shows the work of Professor Marla Spivak, our Distinguished McKnight University Professor, who is developing practical applications to protect honey bee populations.

There are many people on campus who believe they are geniuses, but Professor Spivak is an official genius, having won a MacArthur Foundation genius grant in 2010.

So, let’s roll ’em!

We are hoping those commercials cause a real buzz across the state!

We know that the great stories, achievements and potential of the University of Minnesota—and its work to change the course of medicine and health care—are worthy of much attention.

They are, in the end, the source of tremendous pride.

Thank you.”

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