Last summer, I wrote to you at the beginning of the academic year when I began serving as interim chancellor. As you know, the Board of Trustees appointed me chancellor on March 2. Serving as Minnesota State chancellor is an honor, a privilege, and an awesome responsibility, but I am confident that with more than 16,000 faculty and staff, 30 presidents, and other institutional leaders as partners, we can accomplish the task ahead together.
As commencement ceremonies celebrate the more than 20,000 students who are graduating this spring, it is clear what the colleges and universities of Minnesota State mean to the people of communities across our state. My understanding of our complexity and the challenges we face has matured over time (much as I have, though it might be surprising to some!) from my time at St. Cloud State University, at Metropolitan State University, and as your interim chancellor.
A couple of weeks ago, I undertook a three-day, 936-mile tour that included campus visits and discussions with local television and newspapers in ten cities – St. Cloud, Bemidji, Fargo-Moorhead, Worthington, Marshall, Mankato, Winona, Red Wing, and the final two campuses in my quest to visit all of our 54 campuses: Central Lakes College in Staples and the Canby campus of Minnesota West Community and Technical College.
My goal was to tell our story – the story of the college or university in each media market and how those campuses are absolutely vital to the social and economic vibrancy of the community they serve; and also the story of the collective impact of all our colleges and universities across the state. A powerful symbol of that impact is the 40,000 students who graduate from our campuses every year and bring their skills and talents back into Minnesota communities. That is critical when you’re greeted by Help Wanted signs these days, no matter what city or town you’re in.
I’d like to share with you just two examples from my recent campus visits that reveal what we do and who we are as a system of colleges and universities:
At Central Lakes College, I toured the 360-acre operations field (affectionately known as “the sand box”) used by the Heavy Equipment Operations and Maintenance program, which is the largest laboratory at any of our colleges and universities. Central Lakes students gain hands-on experience running equipment fitted with the latest GPS technology, including one piece of equipment for laying pipe donated by community partners.
My visit to Minnesota West in Canby gave me a great deal to reflect on. It’s where I met Jody Olson, an incredibly proud supporter of the Canby campus, whose late husband, Dr. Robert Olson, was instrumental in the creation of what was then Canby Area Vocational Technical Institute in 1965. Jody continues that legacy through an annual scholarship, and her family’s generosity represents the generosity of families and community partners who over the years helped build our system of colleges and universities. Because of people like the Olsons, the Canby campus of Minnesota West is now home to unique programs such as Wind Energy Technology, which attracts students from across the state.
Canby is also where I was presented with a sacred ceremonial Lakota pipe carved by Ray Redwing, a Vietnam Navy veteran, member of the Santee Dakota Nation, and pipe carver who worked at Pipestone National Monument for over two decades. I was told the pipe represents the four directions from which the four winds come, and each direction and each wind has a special meaning: North brings the cold, cleansing winds of winter. South stands for warmth and growing. East is where the sun rises, bringing a new day. And West is the source of thunder and rain, which provides our lakes, streams, and rivers. I was deeply moved by this gift, and the wisdom behind it will be an inspiration as we respond to our challenges and to the headwinds facing higher education.
At every campus I set foot on, I am incredibly humbled and impressed by the deep commitment faculty, staff, and community members show for students and for the college or university. From a simple “hello” faculty and staff say to students in the hallway, to the president who doesn’t think it’s beneath him to stop to pick up trash, to community partners who make it possible for our students to have real-world experience long before they graduate, I sense something powerful that’s unlike anything that exists at any other higher education providers. That’s what makes Minnesota State and the work we do very special. We are the flagship higher education system for the state of Minnesota.
The past year has been a learning experience for me – first as interim and now learning what it means to be the long-term chancellor. I began the year planning to pass the torch to the next chancellor, little did I realize that I would be passing it along to myself. I finish this year well aware that I have much to do and much to learn from all of you, but I am excited about our partnership and the work ahead.
One final thought: as we strive to provide the educational experiences our students need, I hope we will all remember to take care of ourselves and each other.
Until my next visit to your campus,