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From the President

President Virginia "Ginny" Arthur Convocation Address 2017-2018

Posted August 14, 2017

Good morning, and thank you so much for being here. I welcome you to Metropolitan State's 2017 Convocation. It is really wonderful to see this auditorium almost full. We are also livestreaming today, thanks to our CIO, Steve Reed, and his team. We have developed a great livestreaming capability, so I know there may be people all around the Twin Cities, and other places, who are listening in and watching this morning.

I hope you all are feeling that sense of excitement that I think is building as we approach the start of classes. I know that, when I left the office the other night, there was a group of five or six students, sitting in the Great Hall, comparing their schedules and talking about what their new classes were, and I said, "This is why we do what we do!" 

One of the many joys of this time of year is the opportunity for us to meet new colleagues who have joined our community since our last Convocation. As some of you early-birds entered the auditorium today, we had a scrolling PowerPoint displaying the pictures of our new colleagues-so at least you could get a glimpse of them, and know that they were someone you ought to talk to in the next day or so, and get to know them.

I want to thank Marketing and Communications because they spent the last week or so scurrying around campus to capture a photo of everyone who has joined the University since last August. We actually had a few slides without photos, because those colleagues joined the University this week, and we weren't able to track them down. But now, I would like to ask anyone who is new to the University since August 16th of 2016 to please stand. (Applause)

Thanks to everyone for that warm welcome.

I hope that during our picnic, which is coming up after this talk, and in the "meet and greet" for our new provost, Dr. Amy Gort, and our new dean of the College of Sciences, Kyle Swanson, which occurs at 2:30, that you will try to seek out one of these new people and introduce yourselves. I want to remind everyone that, at 2:30, there's a little bonus there's also ice cream.

We have so many joyful things to celebrate today, as we start the new year, but I also want to take just a moment to reflect on a loss to our University community that occurred last month. Doug Knowlton, our associate provost for student success, passed away unexpectedly on July 5th. For those of you who knew and worked with Doug, I know you remember a kind and helpful person who was extraordinarily supportive of our students. In fact, all those really "difficult" student cases that came to the Provost or to the President's office, I knew that I could turn them over to Doug and that he would handle them with the greatest care and tact. One of the things I really admired about Doug was the way that he treated every encounter with a student as an opportunity for the student to learn something new about how to navigate in the world, and for himself to learn something new. So I hope, while we will miss Doug, that his spirit will help to inspire all of us to go that extra step to help students, even, and maybe especially, the most difficult ones.

Before I begin my main remarks, I want to answer some of the questions I have heard people ask about Convocation-questions like, "What is it?" or "Why do we have one?" 

The literal meaning of the word is: "a large formal assembly of people."

Over time, the word "convocation" really has become associated with colleges and universities and involves a formal gathering to recognize a new class of students or the beginning of the academic year. In some universities, it is a ceremony held at the other end of the students' academic life, as they graduate from the university, to mark the honors that they have accumulated. In either case, the convocation marks an important event in the life of an academic community. Students are usually in attendance and are usually the focus, and they get speeches, about the important life transition occurring for the students and their family members, from the president, the provost, and faculty members. These might be the convocations you remember from your own college experience.

In higher education we like rituals and, even as a nontraditional university, we use these ritual occasions to mark important moments in the life of our University, and for our students. Because our students have busy lives and many competing demands, and because they don't live on our campus, it has never been practical to call them together for a traditional convocation. Instead, we put our emphasis on coming together as a community to re-connect after a quieter summer and to reflect on our shared purpose as an academic community that provides a different experience for our non-traditional student body.

We are coming together to mark our students' passage into higher education, or their progress toward another academic year. So let's keep them in mind as we take this time to think about some of the accomplishments of our campus community and prepare ourselves for the upcoming year and look ahead to our long term future.

As is traditional, I want to recap some highlights from the year just passed.

First, our most significant shared accomplishment is the conferral of almost 2,200 bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees during the 2017 academic year.

This spring marked our 100th Commencement and this year saw our largest number of graduates yet. We are proud of each and every one of them.

After several years of hard work by a dedicated group of faculty and staff, we were pleased to have our accreditation re-affirmed this spring by the Higher Learning Commission. While we have a few things we still need to demonstrate to them, you will note that our next reaffirmation check-in comes in 10 years. Hopefully, we will all be around for it! Responding to the feedback from our Systems Portfolio report, making improvements to our processes, and documenting all of that good work was really a Herculean task. I am grateful to everyone who assisted; it was a team effort in a way that it has never been at Metropolitan State before!

I know that we have suffered a lot over the construction of the most beautiful parking ramp in Minnesota-and you have to say, it really looks nice! But it has allowed us to bring so many intellectually and culturally enriching activities to our campus in this last year, even, ironically, helping us to strengthen our bonds with the East Side neighborhood and across St. Paul. I am only sharing a few such events here, but really, over the past year, we have introduced a few thousand people to Metropolitan State who didn't know we existed. I have heard so many compliments about the beauty of our campus and the importance of the work that we do with students. Again, just a few highlights, because there were too many notable events to list them all and I will mention a few more, later in the talk.

The "Overcoming Racism" conference was held on campus in November. We have been hosting it for the last few years, but this year was the largest yet, and it almost strained our physical capacity. For keynote addresses, this auditorium was filled to capacity, and we had overflow seating and viewing in the Founders Hall reception area.

Just last month we hosted the first regional meeting of the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking. One of our alumnae, Bukola Oriola, is a member of the Council. The Town Hall was attended by several elected officials, the head of the BCA, the director of the Twin Cities FBI office, the Ramsey County Attorney, officials from the Department of Health, and many community members and organizations. The State Department officials who accompanied the Council praised Metropolitan State for its service to traditionally underserved students and our engagement with and commitment to improving our community.

This spring was our second year for hosting the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Film Festival. This was the 35th year for the renowned "Minneapolis-Saint Paul" film festival, but only the 2nd year that they have shown films in Saint Paul! They were finally able to live up to their name, and that was because of the outstanding renovation of this auditorium as a state-of-the-art digital cinema, and the tireless work of our screenwriting professor, James Byrne. The International Film Festival joined the Quia Dab Nang Hmong Film festival-the first and only one of its kind-which we have hosted since its inception. I think they too are delighted with the new facilities-and on the screen, you see a picture of their audience. Watch "News@Metro" for announcements of interesting film screenings; we now have them quite regularly. I am beginning to think we should invest in a commercial popcorn maker!

Our GROW-IT Center Concept ("Gateway for Research, Outreach and Workforce Development, Innovation and Teaching")-the old, dilapidated greenhouse we inherited) took a step closer to becoming reality this spring when the legislature appropriated a $400,000 agency grant in the Agriculture bill for the renovation and upgrade of the facility. We have already raised another $260,000 in grants from a variety of foundations, so our goal of $1.2 million is within reach. What you will notice about the slide of the greenhouse is that it has an addition projected for the front, which will provide a classroom, a place for community gatherings and for community forums and workshops. We are excited about the range of academic programs that will be participating once it is open.

Speaking of grant activity, more of our faculty and staff than ever are pursuing grants, and the University has had increasing success. Many of you may know that we received a grant a couple of years ago from the Great Lakes Foundation, which allowed us to pay stipends to our students who were seeking internships that were otherwise unpaid. Internships are incredibly important, and our students were often foreclosed from participating due to lack of funds because they need to work for pay rather than interning. This year, the Great Lakes Foundation awarded us a multi-year grant to provide emergency funds for our students. So, that $100 office visit copay that they needed for their sick child or the car repair-those are the kinds of things that we are going to be able to fix for our students. We know that those are the things that can so easily derail their education. I would like to note, also, that Metropolitan State is the first university that has been given this grant. In the past, it has gone to two-year colleges.

As you will see on the slide, we also have a suicide-prevention grant from SAMHSA; grants from the Department of Education; the Travelers Foundation has renewed its support for our program there; and the Graves Foundation provided funding to support teacher candidates of color. These have been great opportunities.

We still have several grant applications pending with federal agencies-things are moving a little slow in Washington, D.C.-and we are hopeful that many of those will be funded. The CFO, the Provost, and I recognize that we need to develop better support for your work in this area, so we are planning to hire a staff member in the Provost's office to provide post-award grant support-probably the worst part of grants management-for faculty and staff across the University. I have also engaged a consultant with whom we have worked on grantmaking in the past-Fox Advancement, some of you may know them to come to campus in the next few weeks, to sit down and talk with interested faculty and staff, review our programs, and then provide us with a strategic plan for our pursuit of grants. They will identify where we will most likely be successful so that we can put our efforts into the right places. We know that grants are an important supplemental funding source that allows us to take on important service to students (such as the emergency grants), curriculum development, and scholarly activity. I want to thank everyone who submitted a grant this year, whether it was successful or not because by putting together the grant, you are building our experience and our capacity for the future.

Fiscal year 2017 was also a notable year for University fundraising. This is a picture of the Carter family. Jason Carter, seated in front, is a former student of ours in the natural sciences, who died a year ago in May. After coming to campus, meeting faculty and students, and learning about the significant work of this university in educating traditionally-underserved students, Bob and Diana Carter pledged $2 million to support Science students and faculty, in honor of Jason, who struggled valiantly with cancer. Pledging over a five-year term, the Carters have already given us more than 60% of the promised gift, so that we could begin supporting students as quickly as possible. The first Carter Scholars were named this spring. On September 9th, we will officially name the Science Education Center in honor of Jason Carter, and I hope some of you will be there.

So those are the highlights of the past year. Now I want to turn our focus to the future.

Earlier this summer, I was invited to give an opening address at the national meeting of an organization called the Network for Change and Continuous Innovation (NCCI). As I discovered, this is a group of prestigious, mostly public universities from the U.S. and Canada, who are all grappling with how to maintain educational excellence in the face of a turbulent higher education environment and declining public trust. The theme for this year's meeting was Honoring Tradition: Shaping the Future.

As I was in conversation with the conference organizer and the NCCI president, I said, "This is easy, for me to fit my remarks with your theme, because Metropolitan State is an exemplar of a university which is grappling with reconciling these two ideas: tradition and the future." In fact, the talk went so well that I ended up asking if I could appropriate their theme. They agreed that I had made a perfect case.

In some ways, it is paradoxical for a non-traditional university to talk about its traditions. But I find that the founding principles of this university are exactly what position us for an exciting and meaningful future. I aim to make my case to you and to the wider community of funders, employers, alumni, and other potential supporters that it is those traditional principles that make this university absolutely critical to maintaining the well-being of this region and the state of Minnesota. If we embrace and fully honor these traditions, we are prepared to meet and master the future, advantaging our graduates and enriching our communities.

So what is our heritage, and what are our traditions? I am quoting the founders now: Chancellor Ted Mitau and President David Sweet (who by their pictures may not look like non-traditionalists, but they were); here is what they said:

  • "Metropolitan State should be innovative and non-traditional."
  • "Metropolitan State should be a college with the community as its campus."
  • "Metropolitan State should serve non-traditional learners and meet the unmet educational needs of the Twin Cities."

As David Sweet liked to say, "We are a college for those who have no college."

These founding principles and core values are exactly what our society is seeking and what our state needs in the 21st century.

Why am I so convinced of this?

If we have learned anything about the accelerating pace of change in our society, it is that we can't predict how the future will look.

But we can observe the direction of change and do our best to ride the crest, even amid all that turbulence.

In Minnesota, we have an excellent State Demographer, and she and her staff have done a great deal of work analyzing a variety of data and giving us a clear picture of the not-so-distant future of the people of Minnesota.

Three related trends stand out:

  1. Minnesotans are aging!

    Over the next 17.5 years, the under-age-18 population will grow modestly (projections are for an increase of about 32,000), while those over the age of 65 will increase by about half a million. By 2035, there will be more people living in the state of Minnesota over the age of 65 than there will be people under the age of 18-for the first time ever! In 1970, just before our founding, people under the age of 18 outnumbered older Minnesotans by a factor of 3.5 to 1.

    If you have paid any attention to the health and human services discussions that go on nationally or in our state, you know this is not good. From the standpoint of higher education funding, which I will get to in a minute, this is very bad.

  2. A second trend: Shifts in our labor force.

    With aging comes retirement, for many people. As early as next year, the number of jobs in the state may exceed the number of working age people. We live in a prosperous state, one with a relatively good government, nice parks and amenities, and lots of cultural opportunities. We love it here! That has everything to do with a vibrant business and non-profit community-and they will go elsewhere if they can't find qualified workers here.

  3. A third trend: The growing racial and ethnic diversity of our state.

    We see it every day in our students and in our employees. I want to note that this slide does not show a Minneapolis or Saint Paul classroom-this is a suburban elementary school classroom. This is a trend that is affecting our state widely.

    And here's the real issue for our state in that trend: 37% of white Minnesotans-that group of people preparing to retire-have a bachelor's degree, But the rate for Ojibwe and Dakota is 8 - 9%; for Somalis, it's about 11%; for Mexicans (the largest group of Latinos in our state), 12%; for African Americans, 17%; and for the Hmong community, about 21%. I think you can see, putting these issues together, where the problem lies.

    I don't see any other higher education institution in the state whose mission is so clearly aligned to closing this critical educational gap or any institution that is more capable of serving a diverse Minnesota than Metropolitan State University.

    What else do we know about the future? We can surmise from this chart that, as a public institution, we are going to have to find a way to fulfill our mission with a lower level of state support. While the greatest gap has been closed slightly, we are never going back to the state's providing 2/3 of the cost of public instruction.

The dilemma, especially for a university like Metropolitan State, or even the entire Minnesota State system: Our students are likely going to be coming from more economically deprived circumstances.

Our Interim Chancellor was on campus a couple of weeks ago. He put it well when he said, "We live in an environment where it takes a dollar to educate a student; we get 40 cents from the state, and the state tells us we can charge the student 45 cents." It doesn't add up. So we are going to have to do some thinking about how we can do this work sustainably. Creativity and innovation will be necessary.

We can't discuss the future without talking about technology. Does anyone remember the early green-screen flip-phone? We thought it was so cool! Now we have little computers that we carry with us everywhere. (Here's a quiz: who can name all sixteen of the social media symbols on the slide? And how many do you use?)

In higher education, these big changes in technology affect both how we deliver education and how we interact with students and each other, but they may be changing our students and their approach to education, as well. Early smart phones have been around since the early 1990s, but they were first owned by more than 50% of the U.S. population is 2000.

The author of a feature story in the upcoming issue of the Atlantic magazine (titled "How Smart Phones have ruined a Generation") traces some disturbing trends to that point in history at which children began to have smart phones.

Technology is permeating our daily life. Predictions are that by 2020, there will be 50 billion devices connected to the internet. The estimated world population for 2020 is 7.7 billion. That averages out to nearly 7 devices for each person on the planet, no matter where they live. No wonder that some are saying that digital awareness is the new liberal art.

It's interesting that, in the past 20 years, more than 500 new types of jobs have been created. This has been a faster rate of new job creation than we have ever seen before. As a species, we are pretty bad at predicting what those future jobs will be-so people are really going to need to be lifelong learners. We have always talked about that in higher education, but now everyone else agrees with us that it's true. People will be coming in and out of higher education to refresh their knowledge and skills over the course of their lifetimes. In some ways, that's a very positive trend for us, although it's going to be important for us to realize we have to maintain those connections. We will need to simplify the "on and off ramps" to education.

By the way, another part of that trend of change is competency-based education-which also is a part of our heritage and tradition. In fact, we were among the first to consciously design and give credit for experiential learning and to certify prior learning that students came to us with, for academic credit.

However, combined with trends in technology and neuroscience, competency-based education is taking on an entirely different twist than what we are used to. Employers are starting to look for micro-credentials-badges that tell them that an individual has been judged and certified by an educator as mastering a particular skill or body of knowledge. Self-paced and individualized learning is becoming increasingly desirable to young people who have spent their life on a smart phone. And we are moving from an industrial, mass-production model of higher education to a more personal, highly-individualized approach. In that evolving model of education, faculty uses their disciplinary and pedagogical knowledge in a different way-we have colleagues here at the University who might be able to help us think about how that ought to be done. This slide is actually a picture of how block-chain technology can allow a person to carry their certified competency transcript (not a copy) on their smartphone.

Interestingly, here is what employers told Jeff Selingo (a higher education analyst and writer) that they want to see in their employees. They want workers:

  • who are curious, ask questions, and are self-directed learners-for-life;
  • who take risks, and learn the meaning of "grit;"
  • who learn from failure, take a long view, take setbacks in stride;
  • who know every job is a tech job;
  • who know digital awareness is the new liberal art;
  • who learn to deal with ambiguity;
  • who realize that "excelling at any job is about doing the things you weren't asked to do;" (Mary Egan, former senior vice president of strategy & corporate development at Starbucks);
  • who have a personal growth mindset;
  • who are humble and learn from their peers and mentors.

I think we already do a good job; I think our students do come out with those characteristics. But this approach tells us we need all parts of the University working together to develop these kinds of skills. Our traditional liberal arts core-that certainly is a critical part of what we want to help out students develop. It's not just the technical skills.

When I spoke at the NCCI conference this summer, I got to meet this guy-Jaime Casap and to hear him speak. I have to say, he has one of my favorite new job titles: he is Google's "chief education evangelist." (I've decided I'm Metropolitan State's chief education evangelist!) He talks a lot about what motivates people today (and probably has forever), and he advised me to read Daniel Pink's book, DRiVE, so I did. Pink says that what really motivates people is that internal drive to solve problems. So Google's chief education evangelist says, "don't ask students what they want to major in; ask students what problems they want to solve." And then, help them assemble the knowledge and the skills that they need to be able to do that. And you will find that people will be very motivated to complete their degrees, and to remain engaged with the University.

One of the major issues that are driving opinions in the public about higher education and its value today, is the issue of degree completion. Unless we are talking about one of the very elite, incredibly expensive universities ($250,000 for an education), the rate of student success in our country is pretty dismal. There is nothing worse, in my mind than a student who borrows thousands of dollars and then leaves a university without a degree. They never have a chance to make those payments and to get ahead, especially in a world where, right now, the return on a bachelor's degree, over your lifetime, is estimated at more than $1 million.

We talk a lot about the 1% and the 99%; there is also huge inequality among the 99%, and the division is: bachelor's degree, or not. So we have a vested interest in helping to solve that problem.

The data you see on the screen is Metropolitan State's data, about graduation rates. And really, for a public university, 60% or so isn't "terrible." We notice some interesting patterns: you do a lot better if you enter in the fall rather than the spring, and you do a lot better if you study full-time rather than part-time. We know that's not going to be possible for all of our students. So, the problem I want to solve is, how do we make it possible for those part-time students to complete at a higher rate? We do good work, but this isn't good enough. We've got to do more for our students.

This is a different set of figures that looks at the problem from a different point of view about how we retain students. You'll notice that, over the last several years, we've barely moved the needle. And we've tried a lot of different things. So we've got to get more focused and figure out what will work for our students. And again, the same pattern holds: if you can go full-time, and you start in the fall, you do much better at staying in school.

So what does this all mean for Metropolitan State and its future?

We are critical to the prosperity of the Twin Cities and the state.

We have the learning environment and the expertise to serve those who need and want to be university-educated over the next few decades.

Our focus on community engagement is integral to our own future, to the health of our region, and to the educational experience of our students. It certainly aligns with our identity as an urban university.

Our urban cities provide the rich learning environment that promotes the desired outcomes for students that employers are looking for.

Solving problems in and with the communities we are situated in improves the future for everyone. (Here is a photo of Prof. Hoffman, demonstrating active learning, building empowerment through community gardening, in the context of the Department of Psychology.)

Another example of engagement with the community is this recent on-campus event: the Coalition to Increase Teachers of Color and American Indian Teachers, a group of people coming together to solve an important problem for our state. Eighteen months ago, 40 people met. Last week, well over 300 attended, and not all who were interested were able to attend.

Many of you will be familiar with our work with the Forum on Understanding and Responding to Mass Incarceration. In typical Metropolitan State fashion, we bring together faculty, staff, community leaders, professional experts, previously incarcerated people, and we sit down together to say, "What can we learn, to solve our problem?"

Declining public financial support, increasing costs, growing support needs of students, and entrenched ways of operating create a "wicked problem" for all higher education institutions, including Metropolitan State.

"Wicked problems" (originally an engineering term, now used to describe complex issues we face as a society) are characterized in these ways:

  • They involve competing values and paradoxes;
  • They have no technical solutions; research can't solve them;
  • They can't be divided into manageable parts;
  • They can't be solved-they can only be managed over time through an ongoing collaborative process of constant communication and negotiation focused on solving common problems.

What are the "wicked problems" we face at Metropolitan State?

  • Understanding the changing nature of our students; people haven't always done research on these students; we may need to do it ourselves;
  • Tapping our heritage of educational innovation;
  • Assuring students succeed; a complicated issue that we need to sort out;
  • Managing competing demands for quality, affordability, and cost containment;
  • Developing an academic plan that aligns with our engaged, urban mission;
  • Moving our partnership strategy to greater maturity.

These are all characteristic "wicked problems." The only way to manage a wicked problem is through ongoing collaboration among those who are affected by the problem: university faculty and staff, students, community members, legislators; we need a process of ongoing communication and constant negotiation, focused on managing our most important common problems.

More than ever, we can't go it alone. Partnerships are increasingly important; we need partners. Our practice of collaboration has to stretch outside the boundaries of the University. Partners will include community colleges, county governments, other employers, and associations like the Central Corridor Anchor Partnership (which includes a variety of educational and healthcare institutions, "eds and meds") that come together to address problems in the cities like poverty, unemployment, and inadequate access to job-skills pipelines.

Here are the high points, as I see them, of this year's high-level agenda:

  • Implement a revised governance system of Councils to make our work together more meaningful and productive of continuous improvement;
  • Work on the "wicked problem" related to a sustainable, transparent budget;
  • Understand the changing nature and needs of our students and the role we play in equipping them with the knowledge and skills to answer the question, "What problems do you want to solve?"
  • Tap our heritage of commitment to educational innovation to focus on improving the outcomes of students measured by degree completion;
  • Develop an academic plan that aligns with our engaged, urban university mission;
  • Move our academic partnership strategy to greater maturity;
  • Continue to raise the visibility and reputation of Metropolitan State.

We have challenges ahead of us, but I believe that, unlike other universities who are locked in by their heritage and traditions into a traditional model of education that will not fare well in the future, our heritage and our core principles enable us, maybe even compel us, to take risks and to step into the role of an education leader that knows how to manage these wicked problems well. The welfare of our students, their families, and the state we call home requires us to be bold and courageous in confronting and managing them. I believe we are a campus community that is energized by large and worthy tasks, and that will stop at nothing to give our students the transformative experiences they deserve and the possibility of ennobling futures.

I look forward with the greatest enthusiasm to our work together.

Thank you.