Laurie Burns McRobbie

"Remarks of First Lady Laurie Burns McRobbie at the Elkhart Chamber of Commerce"


Thank you, Tamara.  I’m delighted to be here, and to see so many IU friends!  I want to thank you for your many contributions to the alumni association, and to the entire Elkhart community.  I also want to thank the Chamber for inviting me.  I’d like to recognize Jeff Fullhart, Chad Crabtree and others who are strengthening ties to the alumni community in South Bend and Elkhart.  It’s because of your work and the work of others like you that we have such a vibrant and engaged “Hoosier family”.  We deeply appreciate your time and your enthusiasm!

I also want to welcome a number of representatives of the IU South Bend campus, including Elizabeth Dunn, Doug McMillen, Rebecca Torstrick, Vicki Bloom, Dina Harris, Anne McGraw, and Sara Lowe.  I know South Bend Chancellor Una Mae Reck would have liked to be here too but her campus community advisory board meeting conflicted with today’s lunch.  She extends her welcome to all of you as well.

First Lady Role

It’s a great honor to be able to speak with you today as IU’s First Lady, a title that I think I’m finally getting used to as Michael and I go into year four in his presidency.  When Michael became president in 2007, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be called “First Lady”, rather than the more neutral “Presidential Spouse”.  It is the 21st century, after all, and with an increasing number of women serving as university presidents it’s no longer an exclusively female role.  And the title “First Lady” sounds like a title.  Just to prove the point, last spring the Indiana Daily Student reported on my participation in an Office of Women’s Affairs event, and the headline read, “Lady McRobbie Empowers Women Students”.  Michael got a few emails the next day congratulating him on his elevation to the British peerage! 

In any case, I finally chose the title of First Lady because overall, it has positive meaning and a degree of autonomy.  And here at IU as elsewhere, it has a distinguished history.

A History of IU's First Ladies

I am IU’s 18th first lady, or more accurately, the spouse of the 18th president.  At least one president, David Starr Jordan, was married twice during his presidency, and one first lady was actually the president’s mother (Bernice Wells).  I am in the process of gathering information on all of my predecessors to tell the story of this aspect of IU’s history. IU’s first ladies have been valued and instrumental contributors to the development of the University and especially to its character and its spirit. They also serve as a kind of lens through which we can see the evolution of women’s roles since IU’s founding nearly 200 years ago.  Margaret Wylie, IU’s first first lady, moved her family of nine children to Bloomington in 1829, when Bloomington was a frontier town of 400 citizens, with red clay streets that became rivers of mud when it rained.  IU, then Indiana College, had 40 students, all male, and three faculty members.  Her home was effectively the first “union”, the parlor serving as a gathering place for university, community, and church business, and she as a substitute mother to young men far from home.

Several of the first ladies who served IU in the latter half of the 19th century and into the 20th helped shape the university from two vantage points —presidential spouse and student, after the first woman to enroll at IU, Sarah Parke Morrison, was admitted in 1867. Jesse Jordan, wife of David Starr Jordan who served from 1884 to 1891, finished her bachelor’s degree at IU after leaving her studies at Cornell. She was President Jordan’s helpmate, friend, and critic.  Almost from the day of their marriage Mrs. Jordan helped the president write his speeches and other communications. She gave receptions for women students, newly admitted to IU at the end of the 19th century, and for alumni and arranged many social evenings to vary the routine of college work.

Charlotte Lowe Bryan, wife of IU’s 10th president, earned a bachelor’s degree from IU in 1888 and a master’s degree in 1889. Within the month after she received her AM degree, she and her former philosophy professor were married. As a token of their close partnership, Dr. Bryan took his bride's maiden name as his middle one.  Mrs. Bryan was herself a philosopher and a Greek scholar, and collaborated with her husband on three books about Plato.

When John Ryan became IU’s 14th president in 1971, his wife Pat set herself the goal of completing her undergraduate studies. She served admirably as first lady of IU while simultaneously raising her family and finishing her bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology in 1979. 

Regardless of her involvement in the academic life of the university, each first lady conducted herself in the context of her time, just as contemporary first ladies do.  The basic roles are still operating: advocate, ambassador, hostess, house manager, fundraiser, public speaker, event planner, presidential confidante, and member of the community. The context has changed, of course, and in the 21st century the role of first lady is very much informed by the seismic changes in women’s lives in the past 50 years. Now, presidential spouses, women and men, bring career experiences into the role. Now, many presidential spouses, including me, are paid, an important step in recognizing the impact the role can have, and that many spouses relinquish independent careers to take up both the traditional functions of presidential spouse along with her or his own personal aspirations and goals for contributing to institutional life. 

The challenges of integrating all of this are real, but the opportunities to influence real change are endless. The president’s spouse is part of all the curiosity, discovery and progress that are hallmarks of great universities.  The visibility one has as first lady is also an opportunity, a kind of bully pulpit that can have tremendous impact. It’s enormously satisfying to me to use the “name recognition value” I have to bring attention and support to things that are deeply important to me and to the community.  My background in higher education and growing up in a college town—Ann Arbor, Michigan—taught me a lot about the importance of “town-gown” relations and this has motivated a lot of what I do on a regular basis.

And of course, you get to meet and interact with some truly remarkable people. I never imagined that in my lifetime, I would attend the inauguration of a U.S. President and a Nobel Prize ceremony, let alone in the same year as we did in 2009! My husband and I also work together, an aspect of the role that I didn’t fully appreciate until we’d been doing this for a few months. We attend almost all events together, travel together, and while it’s important for us to get away from the job, especially him, it helps that we have a built-in grasp of the complexities each of us faces on a daily basis. 

IU's Global Presence

Speaking of the Nobel Prize, winning it was a singular moment for Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics and IU’s 8th Nobel Laureate, as it also was for Indiana University.  Winning the Nobel Prize is a life experience for Lin and her fellow laureates, and it is also gold for all of Indiana University and the entire state. Everyone is lifted up by her accomplishment and made to feel part of something important and lasting. 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. 

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 February, 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. 

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. Studying abroad has become part of the great tradition of liberal education in this country, one that is increasingly emulated in other countries. 

The Educational Mission

IU has long been a leader in forging international alliance to support its primary missions of education and research. And the evidence of our commitment to providing an excellent education is all around us. This year we have broken another enrollment record: nearly 110,000 students are enrolled in more than a million credit hours on IU’s eight campuses.

For the second consecutive year in a row, IU-South Bend is also breaking records. This fall, both student headcount and credit hours surpassed the all-time records set last year. For the first time in its history, the IUSB campus has more than 85-hundred students taking more than 83-thousand credit hours.

IU’s commitment to increased accessibility for all qualified students accounts for part of that increase. Last year, thanks to the remarkable generosity of our donors, IU provided a record $70 million in scholarships and financial aid. The IU South Bend Elkhart Center contributes to that remarkable growth. When it opened its doors in downtown Elkhart in fall of 2007 it had just over 600 students, and today it is approaching 1,000. Credit hours have risen nearly 12 percent from last year. The Elkhart Center has proven to be one of the most successful public/private partnerships that Indiana University has seen. Many of you in this room contributed to the construction of the facility, and you should be very proud of the ripple effects your generosity continues to produce. 

The Research Mission

IU’s other primary mission, research, is also on an upward trajectory, thanks to our stellar faculty on all 8 campuses. The 2009-10 academic year saw six faculty members elected to national academies or honored by their peers, including Lin Ostrom’s Nobel prize.  IU’s faculty members are frequently honored with awards in their disciplines and fields of research, but these national-level awards are marks of the highest distinction, and six in one year would be notable at any major institution. 

Our faculty members are conducting research that addresses the world’s problems, from finding cures for deadly diseases to developing effective strategies for stopping bullying in middle schools. Here, too, we set a new record. In the fiscal year ending in July of 2010, IU faculty researchers brought over $600 million in grants and awards, over half of which supports our outstanding School of Medicine in Indianapolis. The IU School of Medicine, which is the second largest in the nation, extends to every corner of the state, through IU medical education centers like the one in South Bend and through Clarian clinics and hospitals. As you probably know, Clarian was formed in 1997 as a partnership between IU and the Methodist Church, and it is IU’s clinical faculty that provides care to hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers every year.  In recognition of IU’s role, all Clarian clinics and hospitals will be renamed IU Health, demonstrating all across the state from Elkhart to Evansville the remarkable impact Indiana University has on the well being of Hoosier citizens.

This is one example of how public research universities play crucial roles in economic development, as more and more products from IU research are entering the private sector as the basis for new companies and new jobs that support the growth of Indiana’s economy. 

Of course, Indiana’s most vital economic resource is an educated workforce. And the growth at IU South Bend and the Elkhart Center clearly demonstrate how vital our regional campuses are to the university and to the state. The fact that 80% of the graduates of IU’s regional campuses stay in their communities after graduation drives home their essential role in countering the so-called Hoosier Brain Drain. That is one of the reasons my husband has identified the regional campuses as strategic elements in his larger plan for the university’s future, among the first IU presidents to do so.   It also figures in my priorities as First Lady.

Stem and Informatics

When Michael became president in 2007, I made the decision to resign from my position as an executive director with Internet2, a consortium of research universities joined by industry and government research labs of which IU is a charter member.  I was ready for a change and as I noted earlier there were opportunities beckoning, but I also wanted very much to keep a hand in the technology sphere.

One of the areas that gave me a chance to do that 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. 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 working 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 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, one of the many ways in which the university can be responsive to the community that supports it and that it gives so much vigor to.


Another area that 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. I’m sure you are all acutely aware of the pressures on the state budget at a time when the value of an education has never been more important. This is why the work that Indiana University and communities around the state are doing to raise money for scholarships has also never been more important. And there is excellent progress to report.

As you may have seen from recent news reports, private philanthropy reached an all-time high at IU this year, a remarkable accomplishment at any time but especially in the current economy. There was a news report just two days ago showing that the net cost of a four-year degree for instate students in Bloomington is the lowest in the Big Ten, because of the records amounts of financial aid being provided.  The campaign in Bloomington called “Matching the Promise”, has already 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. That campaign ended in June and has exceeded its goal (by how much I can’t say until the celebration in October), but this spirit of giving is pervasive across all of IU’s campuses.

Here in Elkhart and South Bend, philanthropists like Art Decio and Ernestine Raclin have made it their priority to invest in this area.  Ernestine Raclin’s support of the arts has had a huge impact on South Bend, as evidenced by many awards including the naming of the IUSB Ernestine M. Raclin School for the Arts several years ago.  And Art Decio was instrumental in ensuring that IU had a permanent location in Elkhart with his efforts to establish the Elkhart Center. As he said in 2007 when the Center was established,

“We need a university presence in Elkhart to help educate and train residents now and for generations to come.” 

I know there are many among you who have supported IU’s efforts to lower financial barriers to an education, and we are very grateful to all of you!

The Women's Philanthropy Council

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 IU’s world-renowned Center on Philanthropy 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. Baby boomer women moved into the work force in unprecedented numbers in the past forty years, and are now at the peak of their earning power. Coupled with the continued demographics of women outliving men, 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 closing, I want to thank you again for inviting me, and for all that you do to strengthen Elkhart, IU-South Bend, and the state of Indiana.  Education is truly about the future.  As Michael said in his last 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 are 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 own 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, and the state of Indiana.

Thank you.

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