New U of M VP of University and Government Relations stresses statewide impact

    Matt Kramer’s business card features no images of Goldy Gopher, the mascot for University of Minnesota Golden Gophers athletic teams. What his card does include is prominent mentions of not just the Twin Cities U of M campuses, but every other U of M campus in Minnesota, including the U of M Crookston.

    “That’s very deliberate; this position is all about relationships and maybe that was mostly a Twin Cities-based thing in the past, but not anymore,” explained Kramer, who earlier this year was hired as the University of Minnesota’s vice president of university and government relations.

    Every morning, Kramer said he reads the Twin Cities newspapers, the Star-Tribune and Pioneer Press, but he also visits the websites of the Crookston Daily Times and other newspapers located in U of M campus towns. “You’ve been writing a lot about housing issues here in Crookston,” Kramer said during a visit to the Times. “You have a lot of needs you’re trying to fill. Well, the university hires a lot of young professionals, and they don’t want a house, they want a nice apartment. If you don’t have that, it’s hard to attract young professionals. So you’re writing about those housing challenges, and I want our Extension people in the Cities and elsewhere to be aware of that. We have so many resources, and a tremendous history of leveraging those resources.”

    Kramer recently visited the University of Minnesota Duluth, and it spurred the Duluth News Tribune to write an editorial about the supposedly widely held perception that the U of M is all about the Twin Cities campuses, and not much else. Kramer spends most of his days trying to dispel that notion, but not with a lot of marketing spin, but with actual facts and real actions.

    “The U of M’s impact is enormous and the economic impact, it’s just a giant number,” he explained. “But if we can’t demonstrate that value to rural legislators and show them how we are linked to successes in Greater Minnesota, they don’t have a good reason to say in their caucus, ‘Hey, let’s not cut the U of M anymore.’ I want someone saying, ‘This money should go to the U of M for projects and needs one every campus.’ If we don’t have rural legislators fighting for us, we’re not going to win.”

    Kramer said he needs legislators from this area like State Sen. Mark Johnson and State Rep. Deb Kiel championing the U of M Crookston as much as they possibly can. UMC is simply a unique gem, he said.

    “Your Turf Management program is nationally ranked, your Equine program is not only rare simply in its existence, it’s about as hands-on as a student can get,” Kramer said. “You get a kid who wants to work with horses, that kid probably needs to come to Crookston because it’s so intensive. Another campus, you might pet a horse once in a while, but you’re not going to live around them.”

‘Land grant’ mystery

    It doesn’t take long in Kramer’s pitch about the importance of the U of M system for him to mention its “land-grant” history, tradition and mission. When asked how many young people or people in general who aren’t up on their landmark events from the mid-1800s even know what it means to be  a land-grant university, Kramer starts forming a circle with his thumb and index finger before the inquiry is even finished being posed.

    “It’s a big zero,” he said. “No one knows what it means, what it’s history is.”

    So here’s what went down way back then, according to information on the University of Minnesota website:

    “In 1862, four years after Minnesota became a state, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Act, establishing the first land grant colleges. States were given federal land, the sale of which was used to fund public colleges that will promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes. The effect was to expand higher education beyond the privileged few, educating many people to be productive citizens and members of the workforce.”

    “We need to turn that into language that people today can understand and appreciate,” Kramer said. “Straightforward, the University of Minnesota was founded and exists today to help every person in the state. Your ag producers. Health care providers. Your dentists. Engineers. Your teachers, just tons of U of M grads,” he explained. “These professional people who positively impact our state every day, you look at the diploma on their wall, chances are it’s the University of Minnesota.”

    The land grant mission is about positively affecting people’s lives, he said, “But we’ve been riding on that highfalutin language for a long time. We need in 2017 to refresh our relationship with every citizen of this state.”

    He knows the enormity of the challenge. Kramer once worked for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, but can’t help but be deeply discouraged by a recent poll that found 58 percent of Republicans think higher education is bad for America. “It’s just depressing,” he said. “Tim has a U of M law degree, so I don’t think he’d say that. But it’s just this national mistrust of…what? Everything?”

    The best strategy, Kramer said, is not to “fight back tooth and nail,” but, instead, “Reinvent ourselves in a way that gets beyond all that,” he said. “Look at the impact of our research and our service. Look at that diploma on the wall. That’s the argument that’s going to turn this around.”