University of Minnesota Alumni Association

Alumni Stories

Still Making Change

U of M retirees continue to enhance the legacy of their former employer.

Josie Johnson, retired vice president for equity and diversity at the U of M, used a grant from the UMRA to help write her memoir, Hope in the Struggle. The UMRA, a group of retired U of M employees, supports similar efforts by fellow retirees.
Photo Credit: Christine T. Nguyen/©2019 Minnesota Public Radio®. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

While students are the heart of any university, the U of M’s faculty and staff are its soul, providing life-changing support to the University that extends well into the future.

When I retired in 2014, after receiving my B.A. in ’65, my M.A. in ’78, and my Ph.D. in ’80 from the U of M, and spending most of my career in the Center for Urban & Regional Affairs here, I, like many others, wanted to stay connected to the place where I did some of my best and most fulfilling work. Building on these experiences adds a sweetness to retired life.

The University of Minnesota Retirees Association (UMRA) helps retirees like me stay connected to the University and to each other. Founded in 1978, UMRA has about 600 members, including faculty, professionals, administrators, and civil service employees, all of whom retired from the University. But after our retirement, we don’t consider our work here done. Not only have our members contributed nearly $27 million to the ongoing U of M Driven fundraising campaign, we complete over 20,000 hours of volunteer work every year. UMRA also advocates for the University on critical issues, including support for the 2020 capital request.

One aspect of UMRA that isn’t widely known is that we have a small Professional Development Grant for Retirees program (PDGR), which is open to all U of M retirees. Launched in 2009, PDGR has provided an opportunity for retirees to document their own experiences at the University, to extend the successes of the programs they developed, and to research histories of campus life.

For instance, in 2016, Josie Johnson, who retired from her position as vice president for equity and diversity in 1995, received a PDGR grant to develop her memoir Hope in the Struggle. The book documents her community activism, involvement starting the U of M’s African American Studies Department in 1971, and her role as the University’s first Black Regent. Johnson, now 90, continues to be in the news as we reflect on past and current racial unrest and on the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

Racial and religious prejudice at the University between 1930 and 1942 was also documented in an exhibit called “A Campus Divided,” shown at the Andersen Library in 2018. Through public and internal documents, the exhibit unearthed a history of anti-Semitic and racist policies and attitudes. When it concluded, lead researcher and Professor Emerita of American Studies Riv-Ellen Prell transformed the exhibit into a website. Through a PDGR grant, a new interactive graphic was added to the exhibit to display relationships among key actors from that time, including Lotus D. Coffman, the University’s fifth president, who had advocated for segregated campus housing. For this project and her career of distinguished work, Prell received the Lee Max Friedman medal from the American Jewish Historical Society in 2020.

PDGR grants have also made an impact on secondary education. The U of M Talented Youth in Mathematics Program (UMTYMP), founded in 1980, is one of the nation’s premier accelerated mathematics programs for students in middle and high school. However, in early years, the overwhelming majority of students taking part in it were boys. That changed in 2014, when UMTYMP founder and Emeritus Professor Harvey Keynes used a PDGR grant to develop programs to attract and retain female students. Keynes’ work led to the School of Mathematics receiving the 2018 Exemplary Program Award from the American Mathematical Society.

PDGR grants also have other uses. Retired Curriculum and Instruction lecturer Betty Cooke used a grant to update a series of videos on Reflective Dialogue Parent Education Design (RDPED), a parent education approach founded at the U of M in the mid-1990s. These videos have been translated into several languages, including Spanish and Somali. With the help of the U of M’s Office for Technology Commercialization, a small company was also launched to make the videos accessible for parent educators in the Minnesota public schools.

In other PDGR projects, Charles Fairhurst (T.W. Bennett Professor Emeritus of Mining, Engineering, and Rock Mechanics in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo-Engineering) is preparing a series of videos on mining that are intended for a range of audiences, including government decision-makers, the general public, and middle school students.

The list goes on. Retirees like me keep working for the U of M for our own satisfaction, but the results of that work are good for everyone

We’re not done making change here yet.

Will Craig retired from the U of M in 2014 and serves on the board of UMRA.

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