Appreciation of the University of Minnesota
Presented at the Division of Epidemiology Recognition Award at Eastcliff, Fall, 1999
The University of Minnesota has been a superb professional home. Perhaps those of us who chose to live in Minnesota have a special appreciation for the state. It is true that I miss the relaxed warmth and courtesy of the southern small-town surroundings I grew up in. I, just as others, find Minnesota people, nevertheless, very warm and personal, compared, say, to New Yorkers. But Minnesota is still something of a foreign country. And our campus particularly is a cold, unfriendly place, don’t you agree? Can you think of any warm or welcoming crannies anywhere on campus? [Despite President Yudof’s later beautification efforts.] I have felt at home on this campus only at old Gate 27 under Memorial Stadium and became a displaced person from the moment we had to abandon that cozy place.
But these are superficial things. They have little relevance to the fine institutional support, to the solid staff and work force of the University, or to the industry and integrity of Minnesotans and their basic humility and devotion to service. Or to the best job in the world, for me, in our division of the School of Public Health. These are the important things. I have always felt well-supported by our College and University administration. Of course, their support was a bit more prompt and enthusiastic when we came to the table with grant money and beaucoup indirect costs!
Our Division of the School of Public Health is a funny place, a vigorous, creative, entrepreneurial research and teaching enterprise, engaged in real and visible community efforts for the public health. In the late 1970s, Lyle French and Dave Berg from Central Administration were very polite though skeptical and noncommittal when we asked them to join us in proposing a legislative special to help our community prevention strategies get underway. They demurred, with a smile, of course. Later, when we came up with bundles of money from NIH, the University rushed to our doorstep, or rather to our cave entrance at Gate 27. VP French even arrived offering to eat crow. We were happy just to crow a bit and to serve him some humble pie.
President Peter McGrath, who always supported our activities, perhaps because he was a health activist and understood what we were about, came with Dean Stauffer and with French and Berg to our old library in the Stadium, and there set up a mechanism to be administered by Edith Leyasmeyer to build us a needed new unit at Gate 20, allocating for its construction the indirect costs earned under our huge new NIH grant. Just like that.
Our deans, from Gaylord Anderson through Lee Stauffer to Bob Kane and Steve Joseph and Edith Leyasmeyer [and now Mark Becker], have generally let us do our thing, with only an occasional “rolling of the eyes,” and usually have pointed with pride to our accomplishments. But our strange old place has always taken guff from colleagues about our size and intellectual distance from the school, even after we worked hard and systematically to become participatory in school activities.
We hear less of that these days, since we have brought a renewed program of training into Epidemiology, which is now one of the larger, and, we hope, more varied and innovative ones in the school. We still hear complaints about our faculty size and rate of growth, even when, after many decades, other school divisions also have begun to grow. In research, too, we are gratified as we see other units in the school expand their enterprise. This has made the school stronger and at the same time our own growth and productivity less anomalous.
We can’t really claim that we are self-supporting when we have a budget from the state and school around 20% of our total resources. But we parley that fraction into a many-fold greater activity. Everybody knows that without the basic state and university support there would be nothing at all, or in our case, only a research institute, with little relevance to the academic mission of the school and university.
“Forty years of Service”
The major item mentioned in the public notice of this Presidential Recognition of Epidemiology tonight had to do with my many years of service to the university. I have only one short comment about the long passage of years:
All elders, I expect, tend to remind the young that life is short. But in academia the interval between being a young, up-and-coming junior and a mature or elder statesman seems little more than flash, and, in fact, is only, say, 15 years. Young people tend to be wasteful of their colleagues and friends. We realize sometimes too late what colleagues and friends really mean to us. Take time for your friendships. Take time for your colleagues.
Aside from such spendthrift ways, our young academics seem these days to have a rampant virus, such a wide curiosity that it diffuses their focus. There are so many wonderful things that a young person with competence and ability can do in medical science nowadays. The difficulty is to focus on what’s in front of you. Doing a good job with that usually leads to new opportunities to do more good jobs. Focus, but take time for others; give energy to your colleagues and your institution, over and above any personal gain or search for standing in the scientific community.
I am grateful to all those who have made my burden lighter, smoothed the way, and enriched my years at Minnesota and who have through their efforts given me succor through a long and sometimes turbulent voyage. I believe that those people, among colleagues, family, and friends, know well who they are. I thank them, and those of you here tonight.
Henry Blackburn. Mayo Professor Emeritus