Laurie Burns McRobbie

"The Importance of Relationships"

Thank you, Mary Ellen. I am delighted to be here this afternoon to take part in my first Cream and Crimson Weekend as IU’s first lady, and to bring greetings from my husband, Michael McRobbie. Michael asked me to extend his warmest welcome to everyone gathered here, and even without the demands of an NCAA hearing, I know he regrets not being able to be have lunch with you!

We’re close the end of Michael’s first year, and while I don’t feel exactly “new” anymore, I know I’m still new to many of you. So I thought I’d start by telling you a little about myself and about my goals as IU’s first lady.


I was born in Madison, Wisconsin and grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan as one of four children. You can see I’m really branching out by making another midwestern college town my third home! But I am very proud to be a Midwesterner and very comfortable in academic communities. My father was a professor of radiation biology at the University of Michigan, which is also my alma mater. I received my undergraduate degree in history at Michigan in 1978, with a particular focus in women’s history. I was also involved in getting the women’s studies major launched at Michigan, and I’ve loved seeing how far the whole field of women’s and gender studies has come in thirty years. Despite this rather regrettable background from a current perspective, you should all know that I feel I have already become an honorary Hoosier!

I went on from my B.A. to graduate school fully intending to become an academic historian, but as is often the case, my plans took a detour. I took a job with the state networking organization in Michigan as a temporary move, something to bring in the income while my first husband and I started our family. But this was just after the basic protocols that underlie the Internet we use today were standardized and just after the first PC came out. A lot of very creative engineers and scientists, as well as those with liberal arts backgrounds, were caught up in one of the most significant waves of innovation in the 20th century, indeed in modern history. And I got swept up too. I wound up, nearly 20 years later, as an executive director with Internet2, the national consortium of academia, government and industry that is building the next generation of the Internet.

And during my career in IT, I engaged in a number of programs focused on leadership development and particularly development of women leaders because in IT there were so few. Depressingly, this is still true. There has been little progress in increasing relative numbers of women in computer science and IT over the past two decades. There are multiple reasons for this, including an overall decline in students in computer science, but a significant gender gap remains.

This spring I was appointed adjunct faculty in Informatics in Bloomington and IUPUI, where the dean, Robert Schnabel, is very committed to addressing this gap. I look forward to working with him and other faculty on this issue.

Being in information technology and particularly in national networking figured significantly in my recent past, as that’s how I met this interesting Australian named Michael McRobbie. After both of us lost our spouses to cancer, our friendship deepened into something more. I moved to Bloomington in July of 2005, and we were married in August, making us together the parents of six children, three of whom will be in college this fall (one senior, two freshmen).

Role Models

When Michael was appointed president last year, I knew I would step down from my role with Internet2. The time was good to take a break from my career and get to know IU better and explore what I might do. As I contemplated the role of IU’s first lady and the opportunities it provides, I found myself looking to my predecessors.

Certainly, I have taken on my new role with a great deal more enthusiasm than IU’s first first lady, Margaret Wylie, who reluctantly moved her family of twelve children west to Bloomington in 1829. But Mrs. Wylie fell in love with Bloomington and with Indiana University, as I have, and she ended up spending the last thirty years of her life here.

Like Michael and me, who are both information technologists and great lovers of art and music, Jesse Jordan, the wife of our seventh president, David Starr Jordan, shared her husband’s professional interests and his personal passions. Both President Jordan and his wife were naturalists and scientists and staunch anti-war activists. They led IU’s first study abroad ventures, the contemporary version of which is a vital component of Michael’s international vision for IU.

A world traveler and dedicated scientist, Mrs. Jordan finished her bachelor’s degree at IU after leaving her studies at Cornell, so she saw the university from a dual perspective. As IU’s first lady she considered it part of her job to “temper the scholastic with the social” by bringing together the faculty and the students.

Charlotte Lowe Bryan’s dedication to the academic enterprise was unquestioned. She also was an IU student—earning a bachelor’s from IU in 1888 and master’s degree in 1889 when William Lowe Bryan, the man who would become IU’s tenth president was still a young philosophy professor. Also a philosopher and a Greek scholar, she collaborated with him on three books about Plato. Charlotte Lowe Bryan served as IU’s first lady for an unprecedented 35 years! In the dedication to his book, The Spirit of Indiana, President Bryan wrote that she was his “most sympathetic, keenly discriminating, and truthful counselor.”

Of course, Mrs. Granville Wells, who was widely known as “Mother Wells,” was the soul of sympathy during her era. Following her husband’s death in 1948, she came to Bloomington for a month-long visit with her son and never left. She was IU’s first lady for 25 years, during which this Hoosier housewife and former school teacher greeted kings and queens and emperors and helped to make students from every corner of the state feel at home at IU. As former IU basketball coach Branch McCracken put it, “her greatest charm [was] her genuine affection for people. She [was] sincerely interested in every personality.”

Mrs. Wells set a pattern on which contemporary first ladies have elaborated. Serving IU during a period when women were required to stay in the background, she began to open the door to a new kind of first lady.

When John Ryan became IU’s fourteenth president in 1971, his wife, Pat, walked through that door. Pat Ryan raised three teenagers while simultaneously finishing her bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology in 1979. Her husband characterized her as a “partner in the presidency,” praising her credo of “never overlooking anyone, especially the new member, rallying together to exchange experiences, ideas, strengths.” That sounds to me very much like the ethic of the IU alumni association!

As the spouse of IU’s sixteenth president, Peg Brand brought a new professional emphasis to the role. In addition to being first lady, she was also a faculty member in the Department of Philosophy, and in fact still teaches at IUPUI in the same discipline. Peg professionalized the role of first lady in an era when women were actively struggling for equity. She made strong efforts to reach out to students and to re-connect women alumnae and donors to the university through things like the Colloquium for Women, which continues today.

And of course, Karen Herbert, who participated in this lunch last year as IU’s then-First Lady, extended her warm inclusiveness to so many and in her quiet and unassuming way epitomized the spirit of IU to individuals and groups around the state.

I am very honored to be serving IU in the position that so many exceptional women have held before me. IU’s first ladies—and I have mentioned only a few this afternoon—have left a pretty remarkable legacy. I have learned—and will continue to learn—a lot from them.

But my greatest role model has always been my mother. In 1962, she was one of the first women to run for and serve on City Council in Ann Arbor, and in 1965 she was just the second woman to run for mayor. When my father died suddenly that same year, she continued to serve as a council member, went on to earn a Master’s degree in public administration and engage in several other careers, and even today, on the cusp of her 85th birthday, she remains active in her community.

Current Agenda as First Lady

As I came into adulthood, it was her experiences that helped form my belief that I should be my own person, economically and intellectually, and she taught me that there are multiple ways to engage in civic life and to be a force for change. And coming into the role of first lady, I saw the opportunity to do my own part to make a difference for my community and my university.

Stem Education

One area that jumped out immediately came from my technology background, and that is STEM education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). It’s a current national and state priority, given the shift to the information economy of the 21st century, and particularly so for women and minorities. This is partly a matter of pragmatics; we are projecting shortages of doctors, engineers, scientists, and other professions that will fuel Indiana’s, and the nation’s, knowledge-based industries, like the life sciences. It’s only logical that we should look to populations that have been disproportionately underrepresented in the past to meet the workforce demands of the future.

But the lack of women and minorities in technical fields is first and foremost a matter of equity; the highly paid jobs of the future, particularly here in Indiana where the life sciences are becoming such a major part of our 21st century economy, will require at least basic competency in math and science.

As recently as 2006, Batelle ranked Indiana in the top 3 states for life sciences industries (pharmaceuticals, medical devices, health care, etc.). Nearly 600,000 jobs in the state are tied directly or indirectly to the health industry, representing over $21 billion in wages, and $8 billion in state and federal taxes. This is over 20% of Indiana’s tax base.

To help with this, I am taking on an advocacy role with I-STEM, a state-wide initiative in which IU, Purdue and other universities around the state participate. I-STEM is focused on a number of things, including redesigning middle school and high school curricula. It also focuses on providing the professional development needed to, among other outcomes, enable Indiana’s teachers to increase the success of female and minority students in these fields.

We’ve all experienced transformational teachers, the ones who spark a life-long interest in a particular field, and when those confident and scientifically competent teachers are women, African Americans, Hispanics, etc., the next generation sees diversity in their role models.

Domestic Violence

Another area of focus for me is domestic violence. My involvement with women’s issues over the years has included supporting efforts to reduce the incidence of violence against women, which despite much progress in reducing the causes and providing alternatives to living with violence, remains the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the United States; more than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined (this according to a U.S. Congressional Report). I believe strongly that we cannot have a civil society if violence against women persists.

When I arrived in Indiana three years ago, I was amazed to discover that Bloomington is home to a national model program in addressing domestic violence. Middle Way House is a model because it goes beyond the core programs in rape crisis, legal advocacy, emergency shelter, and so forth, to providing long-term transitional and low-income housing, child care and educational counseling, and has two social enterprises that employ women who need to be economically self-sufficient to break free of their abusers. In 2006, only 2% of domestic violence victims who remained three weeks or longer in the Middle Way shelter returned to their abusive environments, compared to 55-70% nationwide. After twenty years in operation, this model program has outgrown its facilities. I’m now on the Middle Way Board and am chairing a fund-raising campaign for a new building where Middle Way’s programs and services can be brought together and expanded. It is so important to create positive change for women fleeing violence, to create stability for them and a future for their children.

Presidential Vision

But of course a major part of my agenda is to support Michael’s vision for IU, in which I believe wholeheartedly. It can be distilled into a single sentence: that Indiana University should emerge as one of the leading research universities of the 21st century and that it should help Indiana emerge as a major force in the global economy. IU works towards this vision in the context of her two primary missions: to provide the best possible education for our students and to vigorously pursue path breaking research in the sciences, the professions, the humanities, and the creative arts. As a public research university, economic development and engagement constitute a third mission, and one that depends on the other two. And we pursue these three missions here at home, across the nation, and on the international stage.

The strategies Michael has laid out for realizing this vision include a heightened focus on student scholarships and retention efforts, of which the Matching the Promise campaign and other scholarship programs have been such terrific examples, and on recruiting and retaining the best possible faculty. In Michael’s inaugural address he announced the establishment of new professorships, called the Herman B Wells Presidential Professorships to underscore the importance of a great faculty to a great institution.

Michael has also placed high priority on expanding IU’s research infrastructure. You may have seen the recent announcement about the Trustees’ approval of six major new construction projects on the Bloomington campus, touching on disciplines from the sciences to the arts and the humanities. These join significant building projects on the other campuses of IU, greatly expanding the available classroom and research space, as well as creating and improving residential spaces for students.

Continuing Herman Wells’ legendary efforts in internationalizing IU and building up its faculty in the arts and the sciences is another major strategy for Michael. President Wells attracted world-class international faculty, developed new international alliances with other governments and institutions, established area studies programs, and expanded IU’s foreign languages curricula.

Michael’s goal is to create a renaissance of Wells’ vision and to do so in the context of 21st-century realities. He believes that in this time of far-reaching global, political, social, economic, and technological change, IU’s commitment to excellence in education, research, and engagement must be stronger and more far-reaching than ever.

Conclusion: The Importance of Relationships

I know he shared his vision with you when he spoke with you last year and that the Alumni Association has constructed its strategic plan around those priorities. Your focus on philanthropy, advocacy, international alumni relations, diversity, telling IU’s story, and helping to determine future directions will serve the university very, very well for years to come.

In the end, my role as first lady and yours as alumni leaders are all about forging strong relationships. As another of my great heroes, Eleanor Roosevelt, once said, “the most important thing in any relationship is not what you get but what you give.” That’s the focus of the IU alumni association. And that is why IU is what it is today.

I would like to leave you with one other quote. These are the words of former First Lady Ellen Ehrlich. As she was getting ready to leave IU she was asked what her final wish was for her Indiana home and the people who are part of it. She said, “I hope they keep loving IU and remain devoted to it. A university needs constant renewal, support, investment, and building up. While it seems gigantic in its physical presence across the state, it’s still just people. It’s taken 175 years to build to this point, and it needs the loving care it’s had for the next 175.”

You, our alumni leaders, are the most important guardians of those vital relationships that sustain this great institution. Thank you so much for all you do, and for your love and loyalty. It makes such a difference. I am very much looking forward to working with you over the years to come, and I know Michael is as well.

Thank you.