Michelle Behr is chancellor of the University of Minnesota, Morris.
One of the bedrock values of higher education, particularly at liberal arts colleges, is the power of lifelong engagement with learning. As academics we spend our professional lives delving deeply into our research, building upon our expertise and sharing this spirit of inquiry with our students. We invite them to link what they learn in our courses and classrooms to larger themes and questions as well as to whatever post-graduation life brings. We encourage them to explore new ideas and connect with diverse individuals. We reinforce the value of continuous learning and fervently believe in the benefits it brings — to our students, and for the greater good.
And yet, for all of our work to instill this sort of intellectual fitness, we do not often find the time to move out of our usual lanes to explore new areas of knowledge and to interact in substantive ways with people who bring perspectives and expertise very different from our own. But when we give ourselves the time and space to do so, the experience serves as a potent reminder of the power behind an education that never ends.
Last month I had the opportunity to join the Minnesota Climate Smart Municipalities (CSM) delegation on a trip to Germany. Connecting five Minnesota cities with five German partner cities and encompassing additional collaborations at the state level, the project exemplifies the relevance of liberal arts principles like lifelong interdisciplinary learning. For example, the involved communities are working within local and regional contexts and together across oceans toward innovations in developing and implementing the use of renewable energy and on other environmental sustainability, efficiency, and conservation-related goals.
During our travels we had the privilege of touring facilities such as a wastewater plant that transforms sludge into renewable energy, district heating plants, and a municipal bioenergy park. We met with government ministers, entrepreneurs, technical experts, and enthusiastic citizens. We exchanged knowledge across disciplines and national boundaries and engaged bright young people in our learning.
Throughout the week I found myself thinking not only about the energy-related information I was learning but also about the power of exchanges, internships, leading by example, and working across differences. In short, I was thinking about what we do in academia, and how, and why, we ought to apply and model it each day.
I have participated in delegations of various sorts and for various purposes throughout my years in higher education, but the nature and composition of this one was especially powerful. Representing local governments, businesses, utilities, nonprofits, state agencies, and the University of Minnesota System, more than 30 of us made the trip. Some of the Minnesotans had particular technical, practical, or policy expertise, while others — such as myself — were connected to CSM partners through a variety of ancillary roles. Three delegates were undergraduate interns already hard at work in this arena.
As I reflect upon what made the week so moving for me, the lessons have less to do with the power of renewable energy and more to do with the power of experiential learning. The power of collaboration across difference and of indefatigable curiosity. These lessons embody values we elevate at our institutions, yet, at least for me, could live more fully in my everyday administrative life:
● Lifelong learning: As a higher education role model, demonstrate in tangible and very public ways a commitment to modeling continued engagement with learning.
● Applied practice: Participate when and where possible to better understand the work in which students, faculty, and staff are engaged, to be able to articulate its significance, and to foster institutional connections based on deeper and more nuanced understanding.
● Experiential education: Elevate and reinforce the importance of potentially transformational experiences that allow students to test professional directions — experiences such as internships, practica, observation, and shadowing — as crucial components of learning to prepare them for continuing success.
● Intellectual community: Build authentic personal relationships with local community and other partners —focused not on the centrality of the University, but on our larger shared interests and goals.
It should not take an opportunity to travel abroad to reinvigorate one’s commitment to and practice of lifelong learning. For me, though, taking time away to focus on an entirely new set of issues with an inspiring contingent of energy and sustainability experts prompted me to do just that. I expect to take this lesson and continue to apply it in activities that might be as simple as showing up where I might not have otherwise, posing questions, or asking a student about her day. Digging into the business and professional lives of my colleagues at the University. Simply practicing what I preach.