Why doesn’t the Foshay Tower fall down?

The primary responsibility of a great university is to prepare students for the variety and challenges of life. The University faced an enormous task in that regard when I enrolled at the School of Agriculture in the fall of 1946. Born and raised in the small farming community of Roseau, I had lived a very sheltered, rural life. Raised among mostly white Anglo-Saxon farmers, I knew about being poor, how to live in a mostly barter economy, and what farmers thought. But life beyond those parameters, and especially people or places different from me, was mostly a matter of hearsay and prejudice.
Imagine this small town boy arriving for the first time in the Twin Cities. I was fascinated by streetcars. I gawked at the Foshay Tower, wondering how anything so tall could be built, and asked my father, “Why doesn’t it fall down?” There were more people and activities than I had ever anticipated and the new bustling environment was my first inkling of the complexity of our society.
For the next few years at the University, I studied agriculture, biology, mathematics and other subjects, and I learned about people. I met people of color and those who held strong religious views that were different from mine. I studied with people from other countries and from cities large and small. I discovered I could be friends with people very different from myself.
I learned that no two moments in our lives are the same. No two people are exactly alike and never will be. Distance, race, national origin, religion, culture and language separate us. We can choose to see the differences as barriers, or we can rejoice in those differences and marvel at the wondrous variety of the world.
These beliefs — about how complex our universe is and how we must learn to get along — explain why I am so passionate about the role this great University must play to cultivate broad diversity in ideas, in peoples, and in cultures. The University must be a microcosm of all that is in the world, exposing students, faculty and the public to the truthful side of all we don’t understand. If the University fails, then prejudice flourishes.
This fall, as you come to campus either for the first time or as a returning student, I ask you to look around and consider the multitude of people, organizations, and ideas available to you. Don’t be frightened or offended by differences. Welcome them. Someone may challenge your ideas. An organization may seem strange or out-of-the-mainstream to you. You may be faced with a way of thinking different from your preconceived notions, just as I was over fifty years ago. Learn from it all, for it is in challenging our own notions that we grow. Sometimes we adopt new ways of thinking, sometimes we alter or discard others’ ideas. But it is through this exercise of examining ourselves and our ideas that we discover the tools we need for life.
When I first stared up at the Foshay Tower in 1946, it stood out on the Minneapolis skyline like a giant redwood. Today, it is just one of the smaller trees in a forest of downtown growth. In the same way, the singular view of the world I brought to campus as a freshman now shares a spot in my mind along with all the other ideas I was exposed to at the University and beyond. I’m a better person for it, and I hope you’ll be open to the same.

Robert Bergland, of Roseau, Minn., is a member of the University’s Board of Regents. A graduate of the University’s School of Agriculture, he served in the U.S. Congress from 1970-77 and as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under President Carter from 1977-80.