College Guide


August 22, 2010 11:00 PM The Mayo Clinic of Higher Ed

By Kevin Carey

Lehmkuhle’s first challenge was deciding where to put the university. College campuses tend to evolve over time into miniature city-states, with their own churches, police forces, concert halls, and security walls, cut off from surrounding communities. Lehmkuhle wanted his campus to be an integral part of Rochester. Plus, he didn’t have a lot of money to work with.

Fortunately, Rochester was eager for a new university to create jobs and liven up a city center whose restaurants and stores mostly served elderly visitors to Mayo. Lehmkuhle set up shop on the third and fourth floors of a shopping center in the heart of downtown, where a food court used to be. The city kicked in $11 million to help him build offices, classrooms, and laboratories.

Lehmkuhle then struck up a partnership with the city’s biggest employer. Under the terms of an unusual agreement between UMR and Mayo, the clinic’s doctors and researchers guest-lecture in UMR health science classes. UMR students have access to research laboratories, a 10,000-square-foot medical simulation center complete with robotic surgical mannequins, and other facilities—including Mayo’s cadaver lab. That’s how Chelsea Griffin and a small class of fellow students ended up spending time with dead people on a Friday afternoon.

Next, Lehmkuhle had to hire professors and decide how to organize their work. Traditional universities isolate their faculty in academic departments that often view one another as strange denizens of another planet at best, outright enemies at worst. Departments also accumulate administrative structures—chairs, vice chairs, and so on—over time. Lehmkuhle didn’t have enough money to pay for vice chairs, and he wanted professors from different disciplines to work together. The solution: no departments.

Traditional universities also separate teaching from research. These functions are not just disconnected, but often antagonistic. Many professors vying for tenure in the publish-or-perish system are openly encouraged to neglect their students in favor of scholarship. Lehmkuhle resolved this tension by making tenure at UMR contingent on three factors: teaching, research in the academic disciplines, and research about teaching. For UMR professors, applying their analytic powers to their own teaching practice would be a standard part of the job.

Having connected the university to the community, disciplines to disciplines, and teaching to research, Lehmkuhle also wanted to connect students to one another. Decades of academic studies have found that sticking freshmen in passive, impersonal lectures is educational malpractice. Most students learn best when they’re actively engaged in dialogue and collaboration with faculty and fellow students. UMR classrooms were to be small and intimate, with no “front” from which professors could lecture. Instead of facing a teacher, students would face one another, around tables in teams of four or five.

Rochester turned out to be a particularly hospitable place for Lehmkuhle’s vision. The brothers William and Charles Mayo, who founded their clinic in the late nineteenth century, pioneered the concept of group practice, where doctors collaborate with an emphasis on diagnosis and prevention. The clinic also has a thriving medical school with a focus on hands-on education. When Lehmkuhle looks out his office window at the glass skyways that link the university to the Mayo Clinic buildings two blocks away, he sees the physical manifestation of a philosophical connection between the two institutions.

UMR began offering graduate health sciences programs in 2008. But getting final approval for the undergraduate program took time, leaving Lehmkuhle and his colleagues with only a matter of months to scramble and recruit candidates for the 2009-10 school year. They tracked down students who had already been accepted to the main Twin Cities campus and offered them the chance to be both subjects and co-designers of a novel higher education experiment. To their relief, a healthy crop of students were up for the challenge. Last fall, fifty-seven enrolled in the inaugural class.

To oversee academics, Lehmkuhle brought in Claudia Neuhauser, an applied mathematician with a PhD from Cornell. The author of papers such as “An Explicitly Spatial Version of the Lotka-Volterra Model with Interspecific Competition,” Neuhauser might have seemed like an unusual choice to guide students only a few months removed from high school. But she is also the author of Calculus for Biology and Medicine, a well-known undergraduate textbook designed to help health science majors learn complex math. She understands the importance of building connections between disciplines.

I met Neuhauser on a Monday morning in early March, after crossing a skyway from my hotel and riding an escalator near a LensCrafters and a knitting supply shop. She explained the parallels between the UMR educational philosophy and the Mayo way of medicine. “They call it personalized health care,” she said. “We call it personalized learning.” Both processes require diagnosis. Who is this person, exactly? What makes them tick? And diagnosis is only as good as the information to which it’s applied.

At traditional universities, nearly all of the information generated about teaching and learning is discarded. Tests, papers, homework, class projects, and the record of day-to-day interaction between students and teachers disappear; only course syllabi and final grades remain. Lehmkuhle calls this the Las Vegas approach to higher education: “What happens in the classroom stays in the classroom.”

Kevin Carey is the director of the Education Policy program at the New America Foundation.


  • Ruth Knollmueller on September 13, 2010 10:33 AM:

    Please correct your title--University of Minnesota at ROCHESTER----NOT Richmond.

  • Ron Mexico on October 06, 2010 8:08 AM:

    A fascinating article. The main point, of course, is that universities must attach themselves to large corporations that have deep pockets and a desperate need for highly-trained graduates. All of the wonderful innovations described flow from this one simple fact....

  • Dr. Mireia TintorĂ© on October 05, 2011 4:07 AM:

    Congratulations for this article. We used it as a case of study with our university teachers and was a great success