Wednesday, January 29, 2014
After leading Minnesota’s biggest city for 12 years, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak stepped aside in early January and wasted no time tackling new challenges.
Despite having a heart attack just days after leaving office (which seemed barely to slow him down), and with bitter cold canceling his first scheduled class of the aptly titled “Mayor 101” on Jan. 27, Rybak was on campus anyway, holding “office hours” at the Kitty Cat Klub for any students who cared to venture out and get started.
The former mayor will teach several courses at the U of M during the coming semesters, while simultaneously leading Generation Next, an organization focused on closing the achievement gap between Twin Cities’ middle-class white students and low-income students and students of color.
It’s an issue near and dear to his heart and to the University (President Eric Kaler is co-chair of GenNext), and there’s no doubt his students are going to take heart from having Rybak at the helm.
“In one of the greatest communities anywhere in the world … we also happen to have one of the, if not the, largest gap in opportunity between a kid of color and a white kid,” Rybak says. “It also is a phenomenal opportunity because [we are] more diverse than other places … We’re sitting on a gold mine here … a crisis and an opportunity, and I couldn’t see not being engaged in what I think is the issue of our time.”
Centered in an urban community
The Twin Cities campus, one of a very few large public universities with a campus so integrated within an urban community, fits well with Rybak’s legacy.
As mayor, Rybak counts among his greatest achievements the founding of Minneapolis Promise, a program that has helped kids overcome barriers to higher education.
“I don’t remember the first words my mother said to me, but they may very well have been, ‘You are going to college,’” says Rybak. “My mother had never gone to college … It was not negotiable,” he says.
Nearly 20,000 young people have benefitted from Minneapolis Promise, and Rybak says he’s gotten to know many of them personally.
His work with Generation Next and now teaching at the U of M are parallel efforts on opposite sides of a divide, between future leaders who are eager students here now, and those struggling to gain access to higher education. In each case, he believes, the solutions reside within people.
Dean of the Humphrey School Eric Schwartz says Rybak is perfect for the job.
“We’re training public servants who will operate around the world, but also who will be working in the Twin Cities and in Minnesota,” says Schwartz. “Having a practitioner like Mayor Rybak here, who can play a role in having our students serve the community … who better?”
A course in community
In the course, students will work with four core themes: Creating safe places to call home; Investing in people; Investing in the common good; and Growing the city. Each of them will choose a city or neighborhood and work with Rybak to address those themes and create strategies to harvest that community's assets and meet its challenges—including real-time challenges that may emerge during the term.
“I’m going to try in a very personal way to tell the story of what it’s like to be a mayor and in each class have an experience where the students can plunge into decision-making of their own,” he says.
“Design and architecture are central to creating great places where people come together. Cities are made up of policies, there’s no doubt about it, but cities are places,” he says.
Mayor 101, says Rybak, will be a class he wishes he had taken “before I spent 12 years learning all of it.”
But with the past behind him, Rybak is looking toward the future, and he sees U students as key to solving its problems.
University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler recently announced a new initiative, "Retaining all Our Students" (RaOS), focused on improving the first-year retention of low-income University students. The four-year program is expected to reach close to 5,000 students on the Twin Cities campus.