October 2020
David B. Laird, Jr.

David B. Laird, Jr., former president of the Minnesota Private College Council and Minnesota Private College Fund, passed away on Sept. 13. He was strongly committed to serving the common good, as noted in his obituary. As president of the Council and Fund for 21 years — from 1988 to 2009 — his leadership made a profound difference for our member institutions, for our students, for Minnesota, and for the nation. 

Several family members and friends spoke at the funeral service; here are excerpts from two of those speakers.

Jon McGee
Head of School, Saint John’s Prep

I want to say thank you, as well, for inviting me to share some memories of David. He was my boss for a while, but my friend forever. I am eternally grateful and thankful for his counsel, wisdom, and friendship over so many years.

Though I’m not sure what the term “renaissance” man or woman precisely means, I imagine David was that. A policy wonk of the wonkiest kind, occasionally an old-school political player, a baseball player (a catcher no less), a drummer and percussionist (including wash board) in an old time jazz band, an avid skier, a committed family man, and a person who understood and relentlessly hewed to his own north star. 

. . . . 

Most people surely knew David as a deep policy thinker, and he was until the very end. He believed that we could be better as colleges, as a state, and as a nation. And he demanded that we think, look ahead and not settle for what was easy. He prodded and poked and asked hard questions and expected thoughtful answers (which I fear he did not receive often enough). He was a consummate connecter around policy issues – and reveled in kicking off and extending discussions with provocative questions. In fact, he far more often led with questions rather than assertions, a malady too many of the rest of us fall prey to. 

David had an expansive and deeply inclusive view of the world. I have spent nearly half of my life in a Benedictine setting at Saint John’s. In his rule for monks, Saint Benedict directed the community to welcome all as Christ. A simple phrase but a radically inclusive assertion that demands not only a spirit of hospitality but also empathy and a deep sense of connection and community. Though I suspect he never read the Rule of Benedict, David clearly lived by that commitment. He believed in access and opportunity, particularly for those historically denied both. He fought for the underdog not because it was his job but because he knew it was right. He believed in both a common good and a better good – two values largely absent in what passes for political conversation today. Ever an optimist, David so wanted to vote in this election. 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg had this to say about a life well-lived:

If you want to be a true professional, you will do something outside yourself. Something to repair tears in your community. Something to make life a little better for people less fortunate than you. That’s what I think a meaningful life is – living not for oneself, but for one’s community.

That perfectly describes David, and he and RBG may well be having that conversation now.

Stephen R. Lewis, Jr.
Board Chair, Wallin Education Partners
President Emeritus, Carleton College

I met Dave in January 1987 at Carleton, where Dave was a Vice President, during the College’s presidential search. We recently talked about our first meeting, and how we “clicked” in terms of our common commitments to issues of equality of access to education and the need for much greater efforts to address racial equity in the academy and in society. These themes ran through our 33 years as friends and colleagues.

Dave left Carleton in 1988 to lead the Minnesota Private College Council, where he served with exceptional effectiveness for more than twenty years. I was at Carleton during the first 14 of those years, so we worked very closely together. If the expression “herding cats” can describe presidents and deans trying to lead faculty, “corralling wild horses” might best describe Dave’s role in attempting to lead sixteen college presidents to achieve a shared purpose. Dave always emphasized our common objectives, and those we shared with Minnesota’s two public systems. Always building bridges, he worked to get all the players to recognize that, while we were competitors in many ways—for students and faculty, and for public and private financial support—we should pull together in addressing Minnesota’s needs.

Dave and I shared an interest in using data and analysis to inform institutional and public policies. Dave led the Council in promoting a critical aspect of Minnesota’s higher education policy: the State Scholarship program. Dave was tireless, indeed, relentless, in informing, educating, and badgering a succession of Governors and Legislators about the importance, and the effectiveness, of Minnesota’s need-based scholarship program in enhancing access to post-secondary education. I often said he used “Chinese water torture” on politicians—the annual, or more frequent, meetings, with Dave’s drip, drip, drip of data and analysis, had the desired effect. I suspect tens of thousands of Minnesotans would not have attended, or completed, college if Dave had not been so effective.

Dave’s commitments to racial justice, to equality of opportunity, and to internationalism were themes he emphasized in the Council’s work and in his other activities. He forged alliances with institutions, associations and individuals in Minnesota, nationally, and abroad. I still have a vivid picture of Dave wrangling a collection of college presidents, other Council board members and spouses around Bejing, Xian, and Shanghai in the fall of 2000. 

Dave’s work was selfless, and he was anxious to help others whose commitments he shared. He was one of Jim McCorkell’s early promoters at College Possible, a board member 2001-2011, and then a board chair. College Possible now serves tens of thousands of young people annually in Minnesota and more in other states. Jim said this week, “Without his early and steadfast support, I doubt College Possible would exist today.”

Dave was always thinking of others, of the long term, of strategic alternatives, and of the next generations. He never quit: in the last few months of his life, knowing his time was limited, he was still thinking creatively and planning new approaches to America’s problems.