Retiring Chancellor's View: In 12 years at UMD, we faced our challenges head-on
From the column: "Strong universities help build great cities, towns, and regions. UMD remains strong, and I am so very proud to have been part of its history."
As I leave my role at the University of Minnesota Duluth and look back at my tenure, a sea of memories washes over me: the hopeful faces of new students on campus, watching thousands of graduates march in their robes at commencement ceremonies, celebrating championship games, performing with UMD theater students, and feeling heartfelt pride as I announce faculty and staff awards. These were wonderful moments.
There were tough times as well. Looking back, I realize that directly facing problems at UMD led to clarity and success.
One of my tasks in those first months after I arrived in 2010 was to embark on a huge initiative. With the encouragement of University of Minnesota System administrators, I led the effort to create a strategic plan for UMD. UMD leaders and I reached out to every corner of the campus and community for input. Over many months we came up with our strategic plan. We created a roadmap that addressed UMD’s needs head-on. The final strategic goals included undergraduate student success; diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice; graduate student success; scholarship, research, and creative activities; public engagement; and sustainability. These were our touchstones. These goals were reaffirmed in 2017 and are still solid as I leave the institution.
One incident in particular factored into the second goal of the strategic plan. Before I arrived at UMD, an upsetting interracial incident occurred. I felt we had to face that incident head-on as well. I engaged our campus, and we called in renowned outside experts. The goal was long-term. It was to create an equitable and inclusive environment at UMD. As a campus, we made diversity, equity, and inclusion a central piece of our plan.
UMD rich with assets
When I have been asked to speak about what makes UMD distinctive, I mention place, size, and research.
UMD is not just located in Duluth and the Twin Ports area, it's in our DNA. Over our 126-year history, it’s been part of our nature and identity. The Twin Ports area provides unique opportunities for teaching, learning, and scholarship. Few institutions have the kinds of things we have going for us, in particular a spectacular setting and a vibrant and welcoming community.
Size is important. Because we are large enough to have skilled staff and outstanding faculty, including world-class faculty in many areas, we're also small enough to give a lot of personal attention to our students. An interdisciplinary focus is a plus. We can reach across boundaries to engage with diverse people in meaningful ways.
UMD is a strong research university. It’s still primarily a teaching institution; I think it always should be. But UMD is also a research institution that focuses on practical, applied research with ties to our regional community.
Along with phenomenal faculty research in our colleges, we have two outstanding research institutes: the Natural Research Research Institute and the Large Lakes Observatory. We are also a Sea Grant and Land Grant institution and home to Minnesota Sea Grant. These entities provide a foundation of applied research and community engagement.
You may not know that UMD has more annual research and development spending than all other Minnesota universities and colleges combined, excluding the University of Minnesota campus in the Twin Cities. Our research makes our region stronger.
There have been challenges
Some of the challenges that UMD faced during my watch affected the entire country. For several years, the number of students graduating from high school went down. That made our staff shift into overdrive to bring UMD’s enrollment up to relatively steady levels. We worked on both ends of the student-body equation: incoming students and student retention. And we have had success. I'm proud that the number of UMD students who graduated in four years is higher than when I arrived at UMD. In addition, I’m exceptionally pleased that in eight recent years, UMD had the largest graduating classes in UMD history.
And then there was the pandemic. The bottom dropped out in early 2020, and, within days, UMD pivoted to remote instruction. By fall of 2020 almost all classes were online. This impacted both our enrollment and our vibrant campus life. Thankfully, UMD is starting to see recovery as it continues to come out of the worst of the pandemic.
The COVID-19 crisis was met with exceptional creativity by our faculty and staff. One professor sent boxes of chemistry materials to students so they could do experiments together over Zoom. A marketing professor scrapped the textbook entirely and assigned the class to read books by well-known authors. He then invited those same authors to talk to the class via remote technology. Every department and college has similar stories.
Again and again UMD faced adversity head on. My colleagues across the campus helped me find creative solutions. They challenged me and encouraged me to try the untested. I am grateful to the talented UMD faculty and staff for what we learned together and how we kept UMD moving forward, in spite of obstacles facing us.
As I transition from UMD chancellor to finding new opportunities as a Duluth community member, I especially want to thank the campus and the community for their support, collaboration, and friendship. This is a tough but extremely rewarding job, and it has been one of the greatest honors of my life to be a part of UMD and the Duluth community. Special thanks goes to the members of the Chancellor’s Advisory Council and to the donors who helped us achieve record fundraising levels. Their advice and support over the years was invaluable.
Strong universities help build great cities, towns, and regions. UMD remains strong, and I am so very proud to have been part of its history. Thank you, and I hope to see you around Duluth!
Lendley (Lynn) Black is chancellor at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He announced in November his retirement this year from the school. He wrote this for the News Tribune.