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“It’s What We Do”: Working with Others at the University to Address Complex Problems

December 21, 2015Patrick NunnallyUncategorizedComments Off on “It’s What We Do”: Working with Others at the University to Address Complex Problems

Yesterday’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune contained an editorial continuing its “One State” series.  This piece, on the need for a top-notch university, contained a passage that caught my eye immediately:

How will Minnesota keep its crop yields high enough to feed a growing planet and keep its urban landscape green, while at the same time protecting its signature natural resource, its water?  How will a state known for its homogeneous population in the 20th century make the most of growing diversity in the 21st?

The University has the research, teaching, and engagement programs already in place to address both of these questions.  Protecting the state’s water supplies, both surface and groundwater, is at the heart of faculty activity in the College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resources, the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, and a host of other parts of the University.  Likewise, the challenges raised by an increasingly diverse population are central to the work of the Office for Public Engagement, and the College of Liberal Arts, to name just two units.

We work with people in all of these parts of the University, connecting people, ideas, and research and teaching agendas that otherwise might not support each other.  I think there’s one part in the Star Tribune passage that speaks directly to our work, beyond just the emphases on water and diversity, important though those are.

The editorial writer makes some big assumptions when they write that the state’s “signature natural resource” is its water.  In many respects this is true: there are over 10,000 lakes in the state and nearly 100,000 miles of rivers and streams.  The headwaters of the Mississippi River are in Minnesota, and water from the state flows into three vitally important continental watersheds (the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River, and Hudson’s Bay via the Red River of the North).

To claim these resources as “signature” though, is to claim that their value and significance is widely understood.  This is the part I’m not so sure about.  Many writers have offered a variation on “we love our lakes because everyone goes ‘Up North’ to a cabin,” or “the Fishing Opener is really a state holiday.”

These claims come out of the assumed homogeneity of the state’s population historically.  Maybe “up north” and the fishing opener really speak to the lived and felt experience of the increasing numbers of new Minnesotans or Minnesotans we are just now realizing live here.  More than likely those communities don’t have lake experiences prominently in their background, or at least in the same way as so many of the rest of us.

Here’s where River Life comes in: how can our research, engagement and teaching elevate the visibility and value of the state’s waters for all of its increasingly diverse citizens?  Who is collecting “water stories” that resonate across the entire state, and how are those stories part of our policy discussions and the establishment of research priorities?


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