Sunday, June 21, 2009

Bill Gleason: Excellence within our means

Bill Gleason of the University of Minnesota is the author of The Periodic Table and The Periodic Table, Too. He is an impassioned advocate for access, value, and integrity in higher education and — this must be said in the interest of full disclosure — an on-the-record fan of MoneyLaw. And again for the record, MoneyLaw is a big fan of Bill Gleason.

Bill addressed the University of Minnesota's Board of Regents at an open forum on June 17, 2009. UMN president Robert Bruininks was in the audience. His comments, styled as Excellence with our means, warrant close attention by anyone who cares about the academic and economic priorities of public universities in a time of retrenchment and recession. I am pleased to rebroadcast Bill's remarks and to republish a transcript of his remarks:

Click on the image of Bill Gleason to read the transcript of his remarks:

Bill Gleason

Thirty five years ago, as a new Minnesota Ph.D., I went down to Carleton to start my teaching career. The chemistry laboratory facilities were, at that time, much worse than those in the state's high schools. And yet Carleton, today, is widely acknowledged as one of the best institutions of its kind.

There is a lesson here that I have never forgotten: People, not buildings, are what makes an institution excellent.

An imperfect acknowledgment of this idea is our administration's use of the phrase “human capital.”

Along with reminding me of my old lesson about the primacy of people, this phrase reminds us all of the old caution to pay attention to what people do, much more than to what they say.

In the matter of the Bell Museum, the new biomedical research buildings, MoreU Park, and modification of the Regents scholarship program, the administration asks sacrifices of us. It also asks people to anticipate the possible loss of 1200 jobs. But while it asks others to make sacrifices, the administration doesn't make its own. A salary freeze at the level of $750K is not the same sort of sacrifice as that made by a person earning less than ten percent of this amount and ultimately losing his or her job.

We all wish the best for our university. But many of us disagree with the current priorities of the administration and have been saying so for quite some time. This administration has ignored those who do not subscribe to the goal of being one of the top three public research universities in the world.

People who think that we should be one of the best universities in the Big Ten have been called “doubters” by our president. This is disturbing.

The following words are addressed directly and respectfully to the Regents.

Your desire to support President Bruininks is admirable. But some things that I have witnessed at Board meetings over the past few years lead me to believe that more skepticism about the administration's priorities is in order. Signs of this skepticism have begun to emerge.

Last year some of the Regents dared suggest that perhaps there should be no alcohol in the stadium. I think they were right, but they were browbeaten by the stadium's strongest proponent.

One of the Regents has recently argued that cuts to employee tuition reimbursement are inappropriate.

Regent Larson pointed out last December that requesting a budgetary increase that included a new Bell Museum was a mistake in the current economic situation.

I hope the Regents will be sensitive to the charges of elitism or arrogance that can readily be made for inappropriate financial requests to the state legislature.

We share a common goal — an excellent university. But our priorities should recognize the primary importance of people as fundamental to our land grant mission. Our fellow citizens must be convinced that this is so. Only then will we be able make our shared goal of excellence a reality.

Thank you for the opportunity to make this statement.



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