See more of the story

ROCHESTER – Ten years ago, the University of Minnesota Rochester graduated its first class. The university was filled with lofty goals for its future: a downtown campus focused on health sciences that would grow to house 5,000 students or more in the coming decades.

But the campus, which began in a downtown shopping center, remains a disparate collection of owned and leased spaces along 1st Avenue SW. in the heart of the city. And last year, the school served just 964 students.

Economic realities and unexpected surprises like the COVID-19 pandemic prompted university officials to readjust their expectations over the years. Now they are looking at new goals.

In July, officials will begin updating the campus plan and present it to the University Board of Regents next year.

At the same time, the university continues to push for classroom experimentation — notably through NXT GEN MED. The streamlined degree program was launched last fall and promises a college education and an internship with Mayo Clinic over a 2½-year period.

Shortening the time to get degrees and developing stronger relationships with employers are key to the future of higher education, UMR Chancellor Lori Carrell said.

"We're looking for imaginative solutions going forward," she said.

At a congressional higher education committee hearing Wednesday, Carrell testified about NXT GEN MED and the ongoing national push she leads to offer bachelor's degrees in three years rather than the typical four. The shorter time can save students tens of thousands of dollars but leaves colleges without that funding unless they can attract more students and connect them to jobs.

She said Friday she is confident UMR can expand on the concept to offer college educations at a faster pace.

In a 10-year anniversary celebration for the school's first graduating class over the weekend, UMR officials announced a $5 million fundraising effort for student scholarships and faculty projects as part of a new marketing campaign. Dubbed "Onward," the campaign will highlight the university's status as a niche institution offering health science degrees and connections with Mayo to meet future workforce demands.

Launching the fifth campus

The University of Minnesota had a presence in Rochester for decades before state officials signed off on building another campus there in 2006. University officials hosted courses as early as the 1960s and partnered with the Minnesota State system in the 1990s to offer courses. Yet Rochester residents pushed for an official U campus for decades.

"You just have to look across the country and say a city of this magnitude and size, why didn't (Rochester) have a campus at the University of Minnesota?" said Wendy Shannon, a former public schools superintendent in Byron and one of UMR's founders.

When the Rochester school was created, there were high hopes for a large-scale campus befitting the home of major employers, such as Mayo Clinic and IBM. University officials publicly stated goals as late as 2013 for a campus with 5,000 students enrolled over the next two decades, growing in line with Mayo.

That enrollment goal wasn't realistic, said Stephen Lehmkuhle, who was UMR's first chancellor from 2008 to 2017.

State funding challenges wouldn't allow for what's needed to reach 5,000 students so quickly, Lehmkuhle said. In UMR's early years, he envisioned a targeted focus on health care that could one day lead to an enrollment of 1,000 students.

"That would make us one of the largest undergraduate health sciences programs in the nation," he said. "It's there now."

The promise of a smaller, experimental campus is what drew students like Evan Doyle, a health care policy adviser with the Geneva-based Global Fund.

"I wanted to go to medical school and was interested in the field, but I also wanted the opportunity to try something new," said Doyle, one of UMR's first 29 graduates and a former student body president.

Doyle said the program's early days were "rocky" as students and faculty figured out classroom strategies and connections to Mayo Clinic. But the changes felt exciting and necessary.

"You'd be learning about one subject across multiple disciplines, which I thought was quite a unique experience," Doyle said.

Carrell unveiled revised enrollment goals in 2019 — the "boldest" plan aimed for 2,500 students — at a time when the school served a little more than 700 students. There's no timeline to get to that many students, but it acts as a measure for growth.

And creating a unified campus remains an issue. A plan to take over the YMCA building downtown fell apart in 2020, six years after it was unveiled.

A proposal to take over the former Bremer Bank space in the same building that houses residential space, proved too costly — even to just get two classrooms.

"It became a decision that would be detrimental to students in terms of their financial well-being," Carrell said.

The university has snapped up nearby property over the years as part of the 2014 campus plan. Much of that land could be used in the next iteration of its campus plans as the university works with consultants to determine where UMR can grow in downtown.

University officials say the future campus plan still won't look like a traditional campus, as UMR saves plenty on facility costs compared with its peers. The measure helps lower tuition costs.

"We have to do college differently," Carrell said. "Even if your college experience ... was a treasure, things are different now. We want more students to succeed."

Carrell sees the ongoing changes and revisions as a strength. UMR can approach education with more flexibility than the typical higher ed institution if things aren't going right.

"That is the mindset of our faculty all the time," she said. "Just as I think it should be, but it is a different model."