By Ann Nordby
In the Humphrey School of Public Affairs Master of Public Affairs (MPA) program, the cohort of 30 students starts every monthly class session with a listening circle.
Each of them answers a question of the day by sharing a personal experience or value.
"It's a time of deep connection because people start revealing themselves," said Kevin Gerdes, MPA director who is retiring this summer after leading the program for the past decade.
The MPA is for mid-career professionals who want to challenge themselves to become leaders. The listening circle, and every part of the MPA program, is designed to connect each student's core beliefs to issues that affect everyone. Collaborative leadership requires the ability to hear the perspectives and concerns of other people.
"A leader is somebody who has found that intersection between great personal passion and great public need," Gerdes said. "Someone with an education in public affairs is somebody who cares about the biggest, messiest problems that plague our society."
From the military to academia
Gerdes came to the Humphrey School after a 33-year career in the Minnesota National Guard, where he held a variety of leadership positions. He retired in 2012 at the rank of brigadier general, serving as deputy commanding general of the 34th Red Bull Infantry Division.
As he neared retirement, Gerdes undertook a doctoral program in educational leadership and planned to enter the corporate world. While in that program, though, he discovered a love of collaborative learning and joined the Humphrey School in 2012. But first he needed to undergo his own transition.
“I came out of the military pretty rigid, pretty starched” as a leader, Gerdes acknowledged. “I had to be very intentional about acting differently than the stereotypical military general. I had to shed that image so that I could be viewed as more approachable, accessible, and collaborative.”
Since becoming the MPA director 10 years ago, Gerdes has worked with colleagues to continually improve the program to prepare students to tackle changing public issues. Associate Professor Kathy Quick, faculty director in the leadership and management area, said Gerdes is the leader that the MPA program needed.
"He's a dedicated educator, a thoughtful partner, and an inspiring role model," she said. "He's led us in a really principled way through some needed and overdue changes."
The biggest change has been the transition to a cohort model, where students who enter the program at the same time work together for the entire first year of the MPA curriculum.
"Being in a cohort means we're going to push each other and support each other in a constructive way, and when we're done, we'll have colleagues we can rely on," Quick said. She intentionally uses the pronoun "we" because, she said, teaching mid-career professionals means that faculty and students learn from each other.
‘World class’ teacher
Along with his considerable leadership experience, his former students say Gerdes brings a remarkable focus to every conversation.
"He has a relentless and limitless capacity to listen," said alumna Heidi Halvarson (MPA ‘22), senior philanthropy program manager for the Medtronic Foundation. "He always listens to understand, even if it's only a story about a Tiktok video."
Halvarson says completing the MPA boosted her career, and gave her confidence.
One of Gerdes's highest-profile former students is Matthew Langer, commander of the Minnesota State Patrol. Langer, who completed the Humphrey School's Public Safety Leadership graduate certificate course, said Gerdes is a great teacher.
"He is someone who is impeccably prepared and has a great depth of knowledge and experience, but also wants to facilitate conversation,” Langer said. “It's not like he thinks he knows everything. He draws out conversations. He's very talented as a facilitator, but really world class as a teacher. He brought a really unique talent and passion to the Humphrey School that paid dividends for a large number of people."
Gerdes has done more than teach about collaboration during times of change; he has applied it to the program. In the last few years, Gerdes has transformed MPA teaching faculty, which was formerly composed of white instructors only. Now the program has a diverse team of five instructors.
Quick said he has continually looked for ways to tweak the program to reflect society and be more authentic. "He never said, 'We're good. We're done.' There's always a constant desire to learn."
As he looks back on his tenure as the MPA director, Gerdes said he’s most proud of the achievements of his students.
“There is nothing more satisfying than seeing students whom you have pushed and challenged throughout the year, and then [at the end of the year] you realize, 'My gosh, they got it!'” he said. “They've changed in important ways, and they have the confidence to respond to society's overwhelming problems in ways they can feel good about.”
Unsurprisingly, Gerdes has many plans for what he will do in retirement. They include becoming more involved at his church, St. Andrew’s Lutheran in Mahtomedi. He also wants to devote more time to his music; he has regular gigs playing guitar and singing at area venues. But his main goal is to spend more time with his family.
After decades of focusing on his military and academic career, Gerdes said his top priority is being with his high school sweetheart, who is his wife of 41 years, and their two grown sons and their families. "They've been with me through some tough times. We'll just spend more time together."