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Office of the First Lady

"Remarks of First Lady Laurie Burns McRobbie at the Women’s Legislative Caucus Luncheon"

Women of POWER Luncheon
The Skyline Club, Indianapolis, Indiana
March 3, 2010

Thank you, Peggy, and thank you for your dedicated and responsive service on behalf of our part of the state. I am delighted to be able to be with you today and particularly on an occasion that celebrates education. My husband Michael joins me in sending our congratulations to all of the scholarship recipients. We both send our greetings to State Senator and Minority Leader Vi Simpson, and the Commissioner of Higher Education and former state senator, Teresa Lubbers.

I also want to welcome Trustee Sue Talbot, who has been a great friend and advisor to me as she has been to the University she has served so well. We will miss her on the Board!

Greetings also to Kathy Smith-Andrew, as you know a former senator from New Albany and a long-time member of IU’s government relations team. I’m also happy to see IUPUI’s Vice-Chancellor for External Affairs Amy Conrad Warner.

It is great to be with you today and to introduce myself a bit more to those of you I have not had the pleasure of getting to know. I have to confess, however, that there are few things more intimidating than addressing a room filled with such accomplished women, particularly when they help allocate the funds that allow IU to prosper! Unless I also have to address this room as a substitute for a Nobel Prize winner… It reminds me of an experience I had once where I managed to trip and fall flat on my back just as I was being introduced to give a talk at a conference (yes, I was wearing a skirt). When things seem overwhelmingly embarrassing or stressful, there’s really nowhere to go but forward!

I am most definitely NOT Elinor Ostrom, but Michael and I did have the honor of accompanying her to Stockholm in December when she received her medal from the hands of the King of Sweden. It was an extraordinary experience to be part of that world-class celebration of intellectual achievement, for which it seemed all of Stockholm had turned out and where the Nobel laureates were treated like celebrities. The men and women who were there to be honored may have imagined winning the prize, but nothing prepared them for the media attention and the autograph seekers lined up to greet them everywhere they went. And this attention extended to Indiana University, whose name was out on the world stage along with Lin’s all week.

We were fortunate enough to hear many of the lectures given by the laureates. They had won for inventions, discoveries, and theoretical breakthroughs, including the CCD sensor that we use every day in digital cameras, video devices, and, as one of the Chemistry winners noted, the electronic imaging device that allowed him to see the crystalline structure of the ribosome, the component of cells that makes proteins. All three Chemistry laureates won for their work in demonstrating exactly how this protein-making mechanism works.

We were grateful to one of the winners in Physics who did pioneering work in the properties of fiber optics, without which there would be no Internet. At age 80 and in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, he was unable to give his lecture. Instead, it was his wife, herself an accomplished engineer, who delivered it. She told a wonderful anecdote about their early years of married life, when he would stay late at the lab and she would plead with him to spend more time with their children.

He defended himself by saying that he was working on something that would “shake the world!” Her response was, “Oh, right, and you’re going to win the Nobel Prize!”

We were delighted to hear the winners in medicine discuss their discovery of telomerase, the enzyme that governs cell growth and thus plays a significant role in the aging process as well as in cancer. Their work was based on that of Herman Muller, who won the Medicine Prize in 1946 and is one of Indiana University’s eight Nobel laureates. And of course, we were immensely proud of Lin, the first woman to receive the prize in economic sciences. She gave a lucid and compelling description of her work showing how local stakeholders more often than not can achieve better outcomes in managing shared resources than can government or private industry.

It was also a matter of personal satisfaction to see that of the thirteen 2009 laureates, five were women. One of the Chemistry winners, Ada Yonath, from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was there with her daughter and her granddaughter, who may be following in her footsteps. The prize selection committees are conscious of how few women have been awarded the Nobel— 41 prizes out of a total of 537 since they were first awarded in 1901, a number that includes both of Marie Curie’s Nobels in Physics and Chemistry. Since 1980, the prevalence of women among the winners has increased, which is a hopeful indicator of a change in climate for women scientists as well as for women in other disciplines.

Winning the Nobel Prize is a life experience for Lin and her fellow laureates, and it is also gold for Indiana University and the entire state. Everyone is lifted up by her accomplishment and made to feel part of something important and lasting. In turn, Lin has been recognized by the university, the City of Bloomington, and the state. Michael awarded Lin and her husband Vincent the University Medal two weeks ago, the highest honor that IU can bestow. The Mayor of Bloomington designated December 2 as “Elinor Ostrom Day”, the 2nd being the day the community turned out for a farewell celebration for Lin the day before she left for Stockholm. Just before Christmas, Governor Mitch Daniels made Lin a “Sagamore of the Wabash.” The message the Nobel Prize sends to IU students and to those who aspire or plan to attend IU is that this is where hard work, persistence, and dedication to an intellectual vision pays off. It’s always great to win basketball championships (and we will again!), but a prize of this stature causes the whole world to take notice of the institution that nurtured such groundbreaking work.

And IU is worthy of this global attention, as it is also a major contributor to research and education around the world. In his second State of the University speech last week, Michael talked about IU’s international reputation, pointing out that IU is one of the nation’s leading international universities, whether this position is measured by the number of students it sends overseas to study abroad, the international students who attend IU, the number of foreign languages taught, the breadth and depth of its international research and scholarship, the level of variety of its international engagement, or the number of Title VI area studies centers.

This is one of the aspects of IU that is closest to my own heart, because I experienced directly the benefits of studying abroad and seeing the world beyond the borders of my hometown and my home university. I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, home to another great midwestern university. When I was in elementary school, fully half of my fellow students were from other countries, because I happened to live very close to the part of the campus where many of the foreign students and their families lived. It didn’t dawn on me until much later that this was unusual. I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of semesters in Europe, one right out of high school and the other in college when I spent a semester studying urban history and urban design. These experiences were transformative, mostly because they gave me perspective on my own country.

Today, this international awareness is even more important. There is hardly a discipline or profession that is not affected by globalization, Increasingly, employers give an extra edge to graduates who have had their own experiences of living in another country and having to adjust to another culture. We grow the most when we’re pushed outside our comfort zones.

Now, I have to admit that I didn’t stray very far outside my comfort zone when I moved from Ann Arbor to Bloomington five years ago! Other experiences have done that for me. My father was a college professor (a microbiologist), and my mother was deeply involved in civic life. In fact, she has a lot in common with all of you as elected officials. She served six years on the Ann Arbor City Council in the 1960s and ran for mayor in 1965. I consider myself very lucky to have been reared in an environment where education was so highly valued, so much so that I spent my entire career in information technology in the higher education sector.

Beyond my own experience and that of my siblings, my children, and my friends, I see the enormous wealth of analytical and creative thought that our country and the world have received from the great tradition of liberal education. As Michael stated in his State of the University address,

“…in an economy where knowledge expands at an exponential rate, where people change jobs many times in their lives, and where many of the most important jobs and careers and new ones, the great public universities must educate for a lifetime and not just the next few years; not just for what we see now, but for what lies beyond the horizon… More than a diploma or a credential, a truly excellent education gives students the knowledge, values, and habits of mind that will enable them to contribute and thrive in the world they inherit.”

This is what binds me to Indiana University and to my alma mater, and is the source of the energy I need to do whatever I can to support my husband’s vision, the university as a whole, my home community of Bloomington, and the state of Indiana.

When Michael became president in 2007, I made a decision to step down from my position with Internet2, thus relinquishing some part of my independence and autonomy. It wasn’t the easiest transition I’ve ever made but I did it gladly, because I saw a chance to pursue other interests that I’ve had to keep on the back burner while I devoted myself to my family and my career. Growing up in the time that I and I suspect most of you did, as a baby boomer woman during the second wave of feminism, I knew I could pursue anything I wanted but there were not very many role models for how we should balance our working lives and our home lives. Each of us worked through these very deep and profound issues in our own ways, and now with some degree of perspective (my children are all either in college or graduated), I realize the wisdom of the saying, “You can have everything, just not all at once.” I had a wonderful, stimulating career in information technology that I am continuing to keep a hand in, but now I also have the great good fortune to be able to give something back to my community.

One of the areas that I saw opportunity in is STEM education, particularly in terms of increasing the number of women and minorities who pursue these fields. It was perhaps an obvious area for me, given my background in technology and its critical importance to the state and the nation. We have all seen the forecasts showing that the U.S. is not producing enough scientists, engineers, technologists, math teachers, doctors, nurses, and so forth, to meet our own domestic needs. This is an issue that my husband also cares deeply about. We know that more young women than young men are attending college these days (in some areas of the country the gap is 54% to 46%), and yet, women’s rates of participation in STEM disciplines remain disproportionately low. We have increasing numbers of Hispanics and African Americans who are not pursuing post-secondary education at all. Clearly if we can boost participation by women and minorities in STEM-related fields, it will address our workforce needs as well as our fundamental goals for equity and diversity.

I now hold an adjunct faculty position in IU’s School of Informatics and Computing, where I am teaching a course this semester designed to develop an IT Clinic for non-profits in the Bloomington community. The Clinic will give Informatics students hands-on development and consulting experiences that they can take into their careers, and it will provide the kinds of service learning opportunities that studies show appeal strongly to young women and to other underrepresented groups as part of their academic training. And of course, it provides critically needed services to the non-profit sector.

The course also allows me to contribute to better town-gown relations. Growing up in Ann Arbor, I saw first-hand that it takes conscious effort to ensure that the university is responsive to the community that supports it and that it gives so much vigor to. This is certainly true here in Indianapolis, where IU has long had a robust partnership with the city in establishing and growing the IUPUI campus, particularly the medical center that is increasingly serving as a critical hub for Indiana’s growing life sciences economy. I know that Amy (Conrad-Warner) has worked hard for a number of years in building just these kinds of community relationships for IUPUI and Indiana University.

In Bloomington, I am involved in several organizations but most deeply with Middle Way House, a domestic violence social services agency that is one of only six Department of Justice-designated national model programs. The issue of domestic violence is often called the problem that hides in plain sight, affecting families in every part of the state and in every economic circumstance. I believe strongly that we cannot truly have a civil society if violence in this form is tolerated to any degree. I know this is also an issue many of you care about, like Kathy (Smith-Andrew) who is very involved in the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The services of Middle Way House are available to members of the Bloomington campus as well, of course, and we have numerous faculty members who specialize in the social, legal and cultural aspects of domestic violence and sexual assault. We still have much to learn about how to nurture the conditions in which healthy relationships can flourish and be critical role models for children.

The third area I devote a great deal of my time to is philanthropy, which of course overlaps with my community work. It is an area that is a particular point of pride for Michael as well. As he often says,

“Private philanthropy is one of the great glories of the American system of higher education. There is nothing anywhere else in the world to compare with the esteem and affection in which alumni and supporters of American universities hold their alma maters, and how they demonstrate this repeatedly with their dedicated and selfless commitments of time and their personal philanthropy – it is a uniquely American phenomenon.”

It’s also a great strength of public universities, where financial support doesn’t rest on any single source. You, more than anyone, are acutely aware of the pressures on the state budget at a time when the value of an education has never been more important, and you are walking the talk by funding the scholarships that we’re awarding today. Indiana University is also nearing the end of its record-breaking “Matching the Promise” campaign in Bloomington, which already has made it possible for Indiana families earning an annual income of $50,000 to send their children to IU for less than $1,000 a year, for tuition, room, and board. The completion of the Matching the Promise campaign, which is within $16 million of its $1.1 billion goal, will allow IU to continue expanding its efforts to make an IU education more affordable. Lin Ostrom and her husband Vincent, in addition to all of the contributions they have made to our understanding of governance and policy, are doing their part here too. Together, in current and planned gifts they have given $4 million to Indiana University. And Lin will give her share of the Nobel Prize award, over $700,000, to IU as well. It is rare to find members of the academy so dedicated to ensuring that the work of the university will continue for generations to come. Michael and I are tremendously proud of Lin and Vincent and grateful that they have made Indiana University the focus of their extraordinary generosity.

Philanthropy is important to me for another reason, and that is the growing influence of women in both increasing charitable support for causes they care about as well as in shaping how organizations and institutions across the board are conducting their outreach. The Women’s Philanthropy Institute, part of the world-renowned Center on Philanthropy here in Indianapolis, is actively engaged in doing research into women’s patterns of giving, and they have multiple studies showing that in fact it is women who control most of the philanthropic decision-making as well as much of the wealth in this country.

As we baby boomers reach our peak earning years and also (sadly) outlive our spouses, we have opportunities that have simply not existed before to use our resources to truly change the world for the better.

I am serving as co-chair of a new effort at the IU Foundation, called the Women’s Philanthropy Council, that will advise the Foundation Board on strategies for increasing the engagement of women alums and donors in the university and its core missions of education and research.

In conclusion, I want to again extend my admiration and my gratitude to all of you, for your unstinting support for education and prosperity for all of Indiana’s citizens and especially their children. Jeff (Linder) has made the point at IU many times that often it is the members of this caucus, from both political parties, who bring the focus and attention that is needed at the legislature to address vital issues such as education. So all of us at Indiana University thank you for that focus and for that support. And congratulations again to our scholarship winners, the bright lights leading us all into the future.

Thank you.