Scott Olson

We belong to the Minnesota Campus Compact – a coalition comprised of presidents and chancellors organized to promote the public purposes of higher education. Minnesota Campus Compact is part of a national network now celebrating its 30th anniversary.

Nearly 400 presidents and chancellors signed a new action statement to recommit and recapture the public narrative about the role of higher education in civic engagement, democracy and citizenship.

In January, 28 Minnesota presidents and chancellors gathered and prepared a companion Minnesota statement reflecting themes of Campus Compact's 30th Anniversary Action Statement. This was a first step toward deepening our community engagement efforts; in the months ahead, Minnesota Campus Compact will develop and implement plans that advance our stated commitments.

Meanwhile, we would like to share with you our reflections and portions of the Minnesota statement below.

We were immediately impressed by the shared sense of purpose despite our colleagues being leaders at very different types of postsecondary institutions.

The Minnesota statement begins noting: "We may represent a diverse array of higher education institutions, but we agree: There is more we must do to live out our democratic purpose. Our institutional missions commit — in distinctive ways — to teaching, research and institutional partnerships that promote a strong democracy, vital economy and healthy, just, sustainable communities. Our results do not yet match our rhetoric."

We also shared a sense of entrapment in a dialogue that pits workforce skills against broader student development.

The statement continues: "Debates about workforce development versus liberal education present a false choice. Employees, entrepreneurs, citizens, immigrants, leaders and neighbors require many of the same skills. We must all be able to communicate effectively, think critically, organize and collaborate across differences (religious, racial, economic and more), continue learning and take responsibility for solving problems. An education that advances these skills will prepare people for professional, community and civic life."

We recognize that our communities are critical in co-educating our students for professional and community life, but we also recognize our responsibility to contribute to the livelihood of our communities.

As a statewide group, we agreed: "To develop and practice these skills, we are committed to integrating community engagement throughout our institutions' identity and operations. Just as we know our students can contribute to the public good through work in any role and sector, we believe everyone working in higher education can contribute to deeper engagement and impact."

Our leadership colleagues also recognize our biggest challenge in developing the human potential in our state. We are both part of the problem but also represent part of the solution.

The statement continues: "Minnesotans from all backgrounds consider higher education a crucial path to opportunity; there is no educational aspiration gap. So why does our state have some of the nation's highest disparities by race and income? Financial accessibility certainly matters. We must address our own cost structures while also developing partnerships to prevent food insecurity, unreliable transportation, and other basic challenges from derailing an education.

"Money is not the whole story, though. We must address cultural barriers, listening to our students so we can adapt to them, not the other way around. We need to build more trusting and equitable relationships, grounded in a sense that all of us are members of communities, with more to learn, knowledge or wisdom to share and power to create positive change.

"As positional leaders, we also need to be braver in calling out systemic inequities and implicit biases within our institutions. Only then will we support the full participation and success of our students."

Our colleagues also are dismayed with the depth and tone of today's rhetoric about many societal issues. We too as education leaders must take some responsibility for failing to develop the civic and analytical skills that undergird a constructive debate.

The Minnesota statement concludes with: "In today's world, it can be easy to get overwhelmed by polarization, inequality, and violence, and to lose a sense of agency and responsibility for creating positive change. Sometimes silos and hierarchies also inhibit a sense of common purpose, both within and among colleges and universities. We hereby commit to modeling our civic commitments in part by fostering critical dialogue, responding constructively when challenged, and actively supporting possibilities for improvement and innovation."

The public narrative around higher education today is shaped by many issues and topics, and unfortunately, many distract us from our public and democratic purpose.

We want our communities to know that as leaders of two of your higher education institutions, we recognize our public purpose, one that is also shared by many of our Minnesota colleagues and well-articulated in the Minnesota statement. This public purpose shapes our expectations for our institutions, and hopefully, will shape your expectations of us.

Stephen Lehmkuhle
 is chancellor of University of Minnesota-Rochester, and 

Scott Olson
 is president of Winona State University.

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