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Jacqueline Johnson laughs while speaking at the podium at her inauguration.

Jacqueline Johnson delivered a lighthearted yet poignant inauguration address. She was formally installled as the fifth chancellor of UMM on April 20.

Johnson inaugurated at UMM

By Rick Moore

April 23, 2007

Friday in Morris was a day Minnesotans dream about in the depths of February: a day with clear skies, temperatures inching toward 70 degrees, and a robust southerly wind that defines spring in the Upper Midwest.

Shortly before noon, a student sitting on a bench outside the Student Center at the Morris campus looked up at the sky and announced to his friends, "Great day for an inauguration."

Great day and, as it turned out, a great inauguration.

Jacqueline R. Johnson was formally installed as the fifth chancellor of the University of Minnesota, Morris during a day full of activities showcasing the campus and its students. As a testament to her later quote that Morris is "a community that doesn't stand on ceremony," Johnson purposely scheduled her inauguration to coincide with UMM's seventh annual Undergraduate Research Symposium, an event celebrating original research by more than 100 students.

Even though the students took center stage later in the day, it was Johnson who stole the show with her lighthearted yet inspirational address, "On the Edge of Tomorrow, In the Middle of Everywhere," which she delivered to members of the Board of Regents, President Robert Bruininks and other U dignitaries, UMM faculty, and other members of the Morris community gathered in the Student Center's Edson Auditorium.

"I am honored to be here today and so pleased to have this position," Johnson said. She thanked all of the Morris students "who make it such a joy to come here every day," and recognized her husband and children in attendance. And she playfully admonished the instructor of her daughter who couldn't come to the event because of a final exam at the University of Michigan.

"The University of Minnesota, Morris must claim and advance even further than we have before these objectives: the nurturing of global citizens for a diverse world, civic engagement, stewardship of natural resources and the environment...." --Jacqueline Johnson

Johnson began her address by acknowledging the heritage of the Morris campus--which had its origins as an American Indian Boarding School--and the citizens who later imagined an institution that has become one of the top five public liberal arts colleges in the country.

Then she focused on the theme of her address--how the University of Minnesota, Morris is in "the middle of everywhere" and at "the edge of tomorrow."

In the middle of everywhere

"We are inclined, those of us who live in small communities distant from metropolitan areas, to describe ourselves, especially to newcomers, to outsiders, as in 'the middle of nowhere,'" Johnson said. "We are apologetic. And those of us who live in metropolitan areas are inclined to agree--to think of anything outside the range of the furthest suburbs as the middle of nowhere.... But I've got to tell you--and here I quote one of our most famous Minnesotans, Bob Dylan--'the times they are a changin'.' And I assure you, there is life and energy here.

"Suddenly, the middle of nowhere has become the middle of everywhere.... Small town heartland communities like Morris are suddenly a focal point, a destination place, a gathering spot for urban dwellers and international policy makers and business and educational leaders. And I, for one, have changed my mind about how I view the middle of nowhere. As the world turns from expendable sources of energy to renewable ones, the heartland, the prairie in all its beauty, takes on new meaning in the economic and environmental landscape, becomes a new focal point, becomes the middle of everywhere.

"Because of the vision of many people at UMM, we are poised to capitalize on that centrality, on that clarity of focus, and on the resources that are so abundant here."

On the edge of tomorrow

Johnson pointed out that the phrase "the edge of tomorrow" comes from Isaac Asimov's book of scientific essays and short stories by the same title, and that she's especially intrigued by his stories that contain an element of "back to the future"--"the idea that sometimes forward motion entails a return to and a renewed look at past achievements."

She used developments with biomass as an example. It's not new technology, she said, but "technology rethought, reinvented for the 21st century, technology that not only promotes environmental well being in developed countries like our own, but also in the developing world, technology that responds to new global values tied to sustainability and quality of life."

And Morris, she said, is positioned well to achieve learning outcomes that matter most in the 21st century, "that are the hallmarks of a liberal arts education and of liberal learning.

"The University of Minnesota, Morris must claim and advance even further than we have before these objectives: the nurturing of global citizens for a diverse world, civic engagement, stewardship of natural resources and the environment....

"Cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives must prevail. Not only should our students understand that they are on the edge of tomorrow, they also must understand that deep learning occurs at the boundaries, on the edges where traditional disciplines intersect and where multiple ways of knowing come together."

She also stressed the need for strong programs in language, and cited Native American author Louise Erdrich's own efforts to learn her mother language of Ojibwe, in which two-thirds of the words are verbs--some with as many as 6,000 forms. "Language study is the yeast of cultural understanding," Johnson said, "and we need to expand boundaries for and interest in it, as well as opportunities for our students to engage in intercultural travel and exchange."

Johnson closed with one of two poems she recited during her address. "Northern Pike"--by James Wright, her freshman composition instructor at Macalester College in St. Paul--is an emotional piece that ends with the lines: There must be something very beautiful in my body,
I am so happy.

Said Johnson: "Like Wright, I am so happy... to be here today; for my family; for your trust and your friendship; for those who have paved the way; and for the very bright future that awaits us in the middle of everywhere on the edge of tomorrow, at the University of Minnesota, Morris."

And then, after a brief, low-key reception spiced with jazz music by the UMM group Opposite Day, Johnson headed over to the Undergraduate Research Symposium to hear what her students have been discovering.

Related reading Morris on the move: a Q&A with Jacqueline Johnson UMM names new chancellor