The University’s winning strategy

I’m back on my bike and pedaling as fast as I can because I learned the hard way that unless you’re moving forward, you’re going to fall down.

Elite athletes have a winning strategy: They “envision” the race. They scan the lay of the land, identify obstacles, scope out the competition and then imagine what it feels like to cross the finish line ahead of the pack. Combine that vision with training and determination and you have a winning formula.

I see similarities between that strategy and the University’s quest to become one of the top three public research institutions in the world. We’re now deep into the hard work of developing plans that we believe will take this University system from good to great. But even as our 34 task forces grapple with the complex issues that confront them, I believe it is helpful for all of us to map out the course and imagine what it will be like to be one of the three best in the world.

The truth is we don’t have that far to go; the goal is within our grasp.

The University has been on an improvement path for many years. Take a look at just one indicator: the fall first-year class. Our 5,305 new students had an average ACT score of 25.1, up from 23.9 in 1995. Their average class rank was 81.2, up from 73.8 in 1995. In addition, 73.8 percent were in the top fourth of their high school class, up from 55.4 percent just 10 years ago. Diversity improved, too, with enrollment of students of color up to 18.5 percent this fall, well above the percentage of students of color who graduate from Minnesota high schools.

That means that our No. 1 stakeholders – students – already are coming here better equipped to take advantage of the high-caliber education of a research university. As we institute many enhancements that are now just under way, service to our students – and the degrees they earn – will grow in value. And as we deepen our collaboration with the prekindergarten to grade 12 system, our students’ diversity and potential to succeed will grow, too.

Similarly, our ability to remove financial barriers to students is improving year by year, and that improves access – another of our aspirations. Our grant and scholarship support to undergraduate students has grown by nearly 70 percent over the past four years. The Promise for Tomorrow scholarship initiative I launched in 2004 is now more than halfway to its $150 million goal. This fall, 174 students received the first Founders Opportunity Scholarships I introduced last February, and that, too, will grow.

Recently, an accreditation team from the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association spent several days on campus evaluating the University from top to bottom. Although the report will not be final for several weeks, team members shared some feedback with us. Here’s a sampling:

Our work to improve the student experience and outcomes was noted, as was our sound fiscal condition. The team particularly commended our extensive communication about our mission and strategic principles and concluded that we have captured the imagination of the University community around our winning strategy.

I am more confident than ever that we will become one of the best in the world. As we pass milestones along the way, we will become the place where the most talented students and teachers come to study and explore. A University degree will be a foundation of a lifetime of learning, achievement and public service. Minnesotans will speak with pride of their only public research university and its contributions to their lives and communities.

Cynicism is an easy way to avoid the hard work and long journey that leads to excellence. It focuses on the starting line, not the finish. I’m happy to say that we are part of a community that dares to strive and even to stumble as we throw off complacency and wrestle with greatness.

Last summer I took a tumble off of my bicycle and shattered my left wrist. I’m still trying to regain strength and full use of that arm. But I’m back on the bike and pedaling as fast as I can because I learned the hard way that unless you’re moving forward, you’re going to fall down.

I may not be Lance Armstrong, but I can see the finish line ahead. We are further down the road than where we were a year ago. We will be further ahead a year from now and further yet three years from now. We will cross the finish line, and then we will run another race. When it comes to transforming the University, we’re all elite athletes.

Bob Bruininks is the president of the University of Minnesota. Please send comments to [email protected]