In 2007, Stephen Lehmkuhle was presented with a unique opportunity rarely given to an educational leader: The chance to start a university from scratch.

Thus was born the University of Minnesota Rochester as a branch campus of the university system, a dream that the Rochester community had pined for and sought for decades. As UMR's first chancellor, it was Lehmkuhle's job to take those hopes and build a campus.

Now Lehmkuhle, three years after his retirement, has authored a book, "Campus with Purpose," about his 11-year tenure as the school's first chancellor.

Both in the book and in an interview with the Post Bulletin, Lehmkuhle provides more of an insider's account about the school's development. Though written for educators, the book offers some spicy nuggets that community members who have followed the school's growth from its inception would find intriguing.

For example, Lehmkuhle almost didn't take the job. He describes his job interview with Twin Cities campus representatives as "interrogations" and dispiriting. He was accused of taking away resources and money from the main campus. Starting a new university didn't make sense at a time of declining funding and student enrollment, they told him.

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So disheartened was Lehmkuhle that he almost didn't complete the interview process. It was only his interview with then-U of M President Bob Bruininks, whom Lehmkuhle saw as a "change leader" and who saw the new Rochester campus as an opportunity to build something special, that changed his mind.

The UMR campus is located downtown in a shopping mall, but early on, officials discussed housing the new U in a vacant IBM building on the periphery of town. That would have put it away from the vibrancy that the downtown locale has infused in it. Lehmkuhle nixed the idea.

Lehmkuhle
Lehmkuhle

Lehmkuhle's first meeting with Bruninks' successor, Eric Kaler, started on an ominous note. "You know, Steve, I closed a campus in New York," suggesting he might be prepared to do the same in Rochester. But over time, as he learned more about UMR, Kaler became "very supportive of what we were doing."

But the main thrust of the book, in many ways, deals with the battles Lehmkuhle waged keeping at bay the "ghost of university past." This was the idea that the new campus, if it were to be a "real university," had to have the requisite trappings, including intercollegiate sports, a performance center, and gleaming new dormitories.

That's not what happened, and Lehmkule acknowleges that some people never reconciled themselves to what emerged: A niche university with an undergraduate focus on the health sciences and research on student learning and development.

Lehmkuhle was convinced that to make the school special and viable for the long haul, it had to be distinctive and connected to the city's strength -- health care.

A Q&A WITH LEHMKUHLE

In your book, you talk about contending with the "ghost of university past" and managing expectations of what the new UMR would be. How challenging was that?

So often we focus on what we do and how we do it rather than why we're doing it. And that's what I was trying to do early on - not get obsessed about how and what but why. I'll just add this: I know people are frustrated that we didn't build what I will call a real university. We didn't. Talking to the community and really trying to understand what was needed, (a traditional university) wasn't adding value.

I mean, you had RCTC (Rochester Community and Technical College), Winona State University-Rochester, and the Mayo Clinic School of Health Professions. There wasn't necessarily a big programmatic gap, so we needed to find a way to add value and that wasn't by building a big university.

In the book, you share your suspicion that the decision to launch a new campus was driven more by politics than programmatic need. Is there any doubt about that?

If you talk to Marilyn Stewart, John Wade and all those other people (who strongly backed UMR), they said that this happened because all of the political moons got exactly in the right orbit at the right time. When I talked to state officials about why there should be one, their answer to me was: Because Rochester deserved one.

If you put this all together, the story I'm trying to tell is, I didn't walk in with this prescription of what to do. When I walked into that whole environment, it was open-ended and everybody had different expectations of what it would become. So I had to think clearly about what does the Rochester community need, how can I add value. They wanted something to be world class, and because IBM and Mayo Clinic are in town, if you're going to create a major Rochester institution, you have to be something special.

You say in the book that you were excited about the prospect of creating a new university, but that your excitement dimmed somewhat when you heard it being housed in a downtown shopping mall. What changed your mind?

What I came to appreciate and understood that really could manifest itself in Rochester is that universities are not about buildings. They are about people. In fact, I thought it was fantastic that our space was distributed. As I said in the book, you see a little of us here and a little of us over there. A visit to the campus was no longer just a walk across the quad. It was a visit to an international city for health. So, we became part of the community. And in becoming part of the community, we really became special, distinctive and able to provide new things that no one else could do.

You mention in the book that the ghost of university past got a punch in with the naming of a school mascot, the Raptor. Some, especially in the media, saw it as a precursor to athletic programs. But it wasn't meant to be.

I would go down to the food co-op, and there was a fish place. There was a guy there who wanted me to start a hockey team. He wouldn't sell me fish unless I committed to starting a hockey team. "Well, I'm going to go somewhere else." "Well, OK, but I'm going to give you a good deal."

Hopefully, people over time will become more proud of what it is and appreciate its special nature and how it's adding value to the community.

Where to buy it

The book, published by Rutgers Press University, can be purchased through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The paperback and digital version cost $19.95.