University seeks funding for community issues

The school’s multimillion-dollar request will provide research and support in communities across the state.

University seeks funding for community issues

Blair Emerson

The University of Minnesota wants $6.25 million to boost faculty hiring, grants and undergraduate service learning and broaden its reach across the state.

The “vital communities” initiative is part of the University’s larger $12.5 million request included in its 2016-17 biennial budget. School leaders say this request for state funding comes at a time when research on the state’s achievement gap and growing diversity is sorely needed.

“I think in the last few years we’ve really seen things that are declining, and probably one of the best examples is the achievement gap,” said College of Education and Human Development Dean Jean Quam.

University and state officials have worked in recent years to close Minnesota’s educational disparities between white students and low-income or minority students, a gap that is among the nation’s largest.

The group of University deans who crafted the request discussed the school’s plan to address these issues this summer, Quam said.

The proposal, which is similar to the University’s MnDRIVE program and was even dubbed MnTHRIVE at one point, would focus on how University colleges could collaborate to develop individuals, families and communities, she said.

“The main idea would be going together across colleges, across departments and across disciplines,” Quam said. “We all have our research and our data about what works, but we don’t always come together and really think about how it would fit together to really improve communities.”

Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said the coalition of Twin Cities organizations for which he is the executive director, Generation Next, works with the University to understand and reduce the achievement gap.

“The University is increasingly helping us determine what works and how to get it to scale,” he said. “The collective brain power of the University can solve almost any issue if we can harvest all of that and align it to what’s needed in the community.”

The largest part of the request includes $2.5 million to fund a dozen new faculty hires.

Quam said the group of deans discussed hiring new “field-shaping” faculty, including people who can think about issues that have an economic effect on communities.

For example, she said, last year CEHD hired two new faculty members studying early detection of autism in young children.

Understanding early detection could save hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars at the individual, family and community levels, she said.

“Sometimes it’s a small piece of research that can really have some pretty big implications,” Quam said.

More than $1 million of the request would provide 20 start-up grants at $30,000 to $50,000 each to fund research involved with the overall initiative.

“We think this is going to benefit several things,” University President Eric Kaler said in a previous interview with the Minnesota Daily. “It will help us close the K-12 achievement gap, it helps us with research on nutrition, it helps us with community engagement around immigrant populations … so that they help our society grow and become a part of the Minnesota of the future.”

School leaders also discussed ways to design the state’s communitiesto improve cross-cultural integration.

That neighborhood work could include a focus on Minnesota’s Somali population, like community-engaged research that the Humphrey School of Public Affairs currently conducts in the Somali population, said associate dean Laura Bloomberg.

The University’s request also includes nearly $2 million for 30 new fellowships to graduate students, as well as $700,000 to provide a $2,000 per-semester stipend to 125 undergraduate students and “research ambassadors,” or students doing outreach to communities to share information about accessible University research.

“We’re really seeing … the value of having our students out in the community. That strengthens their education; that strengthens the tie between the University and the communities,” Quam said.