Education graduate leads Minnesota's "innovation campus"

by joey  |   

Dr. Lori Carrell, M.Ed. '89, is chancellor of University of Minnesota Rochester (Photo courtesy UMR)

Dr. Lori Carrell, M.Ed '89, chancellor of University of Minnesota Rochester (UMR), is "mesmerized by the model" at her university. As Minnesota's innovation campus, all UMR faculty - be they chemists or historians - research how to deliver higher education differently and better. Then they apply those results in their classrooms.

"Who gets to do that?" she asked. "When I first heard of UMR, I wasn't sure I could believe it."

At the helm of this inventive university, Carrell leads a faculty focused on education research. For someone who's always viewed education as an adventure, that's a perfect fit.

Carrell started teaching in her Indiana hometown and, after a few years in the classroom, felt herself settling into a small-town routine. That's not what she wanted.

"So I left a wonderful new position and sold everything that wouldn't fit in the back of a pickup and drove the Alcan," she said with a laugh.

Arriving in Anchorage, she found summer jobs teaching communication and public speaking - her professional specialties - on the military base and at a minimum-security prison. In the fall, she started as an English teacher and school counselor in Akiachak, a Yup'ik community northeast of Bethel. In subsequent summers, she returned to Anchorage to study counseling psychology at UAA.

Those graduate courses, paired with her classroom experience in Akiachak, "were really the pivotal experiences that shaped who I am now," she said. "I had wonderful professors who guided my reflection about what I was experiencing as an educator in the village."

But, she added, "it's really my students in Akiachak who were my greatest teachers in my life. I am grateful to them regularly." (And yes, she's in touch with several on Facebook.)

Carrell at her inauguration. (Photo courtesy UMR)

Carrell earned her master's from UAA in 1989, then a Ph.D. in speech communication from University of Denver. She was a professor at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh for 23 years, where she also founded and directed a center for faculty development. The center's original philosophy grew out of her academic research on transformative communication, or how human interactions generate lasting learning.

Carrell became UMR's vice chancellor for academic affairs and student development in 2014. In 2017, she became interim chancellor, and was appointed chancellor by the Minnesota Board of Regents this February.

Commissioned in 2006, UMR is one of the youngest public universities in the country. The school focuses exclusively on health degrees, and for good reason; Rochester is also home of the Mayo Clinic, the nation's #1 ranked hospital.

UMR exclusively offers health-focused degree programs, capitalizing on Rochester's medical reputation as home of the Mayo Clinic. (Photo courtesy of UMR)

At UMR, Carrell capitalizes on her career-long experience blending professional teaching with personal learning, finding new approaches to higher education. All faculty are part of the same academic unit - the Center for Learning Innovation - where they explore education and effectiveness in their field.

"[Professors are] conducting their research and then applying their results in real time," Carrell noted. "It's a living laboratory that is having some exceptional results."

For examples, 100 percent of UMR's students are involved in undergraduate research, including with medical staff at the top-tier Mayo Clinic. Each student has a success coach, who they meet at orientation and continue with through graduation. All students move through the school in cohorts, and 90 percent finish in four years. Many move into living-learning communities, where they share downtown housing with fellow students interested in a common theme like global health, or well-being and thriving.

UMR's campus in the heart of downtown Rochester. (Photo courtesy of UMR)

If that seems like a lot of effort for a public university, that's the point. UMR, after all, is Minnesota's innovation campus, with less than 1,000 students and a faculty focused on transforming education.

For Carrell, that's a very big deal. "I am thrilled, exhilarated, joyful to be at a campus where I can apply that [research framework] every day," she said.

As chancellor of a young campus, Carrell gets to oversee the university's continued growth. She's currently developing long-range plans that will help UMR reshape higher education through 2030, 2040 and beyond. Innovation, by definition, doesn't stop.

But despite her career in the Midwest, Carrell learned the most during her time in Alaska. As an education grad student, she took what she learned at UAA and applied it in her classroom. That model continues today, but with faculty research affecting an entire university campus.

"Having the education and the teaching experience simultaneously was really life-changing for me," she noted of UAA.

"I say this frequently: if I'm worth anything, it's because of my time in Alaska. I just became such a better educator."

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