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What’s the next president of the U of M really like? Meet Eric Kaler

Eric Kaler addresses a question during a Thursday interview with U of M Regents.
MinnPost photo by John Noltner
Eric Kaler addresses a question during a Thursday interview with U of M Regents.

Here are a few things you might want to know about Eric Kaler, the next president of the University of Minnesota:

He is very, very funny, in a charmingly self-deprecating way: “I’ve tried to play various musical instruments but I have an ineptitude that, frankly, challenges my ability to play the radio.”

He tears up easily and admits it without flinching. Talking about the “transformative role” the university he will now helm played in his own life is one way he gets weepy.

He’s a scientist — he has a Ph.D. from the U of M in chemical engineering and a 33-page resume. But another thing that primes the pump is talking about how effectively art conveys emotion. One example that moves him: A painting of the Virgin Mary grieving her son.

He and his wife, Karen, have two grown sons and two Spanish water dogs. He smiles at his wife often while speaking in public.

When he took his first administrative job — in 1996 as department chair at the University of Delaware — the department secretary explained his duties to him: “She said here’s what you need to do. So I did it, and it worked out.”

He prefers the Mac to the PC: “It’s a higher life form.”

He has zero patience for what he calls Extremely Stupid Procedures. Particularly bureaucratic ESP’s involving budgets and incompatible PC systems.

No scholarly beard-stroker, he’s decisive under questioning — occasionally replying that he doesn’t know enough to answer, but for the most part marshaling astonishing detail on all things UM.

His slightly geeky review of the writing in a report issued last week on the possible consolidation of the College of Liberal Arts: “masterful” and “deserving of wider publication.”

His definition of diversity includes gender, as well as “the purposeful inclusion of people of color at every level.”

He is a capitalist, and a big fan of commercializing the fruits of academic research.

He really, really seems to want the job.

During a whirlwind two-day visit to the Twin Cities, Kaler engaged with a number of audiences. The trip culminated Thursday in the Board of Regents’ unanimous decision to name him the university’s 16th president.

Right now, Kaler, 54, is provost at Stony Brook University in New York. He will take the position in June, when Robert Bruininks moves into a faculty post at the U’s Humphrey Institute.

News reports have some faculty wondering whether a research scientist will place enough emphasis on liberal arts and undergraduate education, but for the most part, the UM community greeted his appointment optimistically.

Kaler said his goal is to turn the university into one of the country’s premier research institutions, on a par with the University of Michigan, University of California-Berkeley and the University of Virginia.

“Barriers are high, but the U already has many things going for it,” he told an audience at Coffman Memorial Union Wednesday afternoon.

Among those barriers: money. Kaler said tuition increases would be a “last resort” and suggested there’s room for cutting back throughout the administration.

“The cost of doing business must shrink and shrink quickly,” he said, adding that he already has his eye on a consulting firm that can help identify practices that can be streamlined.

“The cost of an education at Stony Brook is $12,000. Tuition is $5,000,” he said. “I haven’t been able to get my hands on that exact number” — the cost — “for the UM, but it’s clear it’s considerably higher.”

(MinnPost couldn’t lay its hand on the total cost, either, but undergraduate tuition at the Twin Cities campus this year is $12,228.)

Other places he plans to look to shore up the university’s long-term fiscal sustainability: the way the budget is organized, the facilities master plan, better private-sector avenues for capitalizing on UM research — while being “very protective of what the university has gained” — and the rigorous recruiting of foreign students.

At Stony Brook, Kaler participated in painful but successful belt-tightening, but not without drawing fire for closing programs.

Asked about e-learning, Kaler punted. But he nearly shot out of his chair when asked about the role of athletics. “I flat-out cannot coach football,” he quipped. “I’m here for the other job.”

Spectator sports and other athletics serve as a doorway to connect the community to the institution, he said: “Win or lose — that influences how people feel about the university.”

Just how did he land at the UM anyhow? “I was looking for my next steps, and I asked my adviser” — at the California Institute of Technology — “where I should do my graduate studies. My adviser said, ‘Go to a big department with lots of options.’ ” The UM was the biggest at the time.

How does he want this next, “next step” to go?

Kaler couldn’t answer without tearing up again: “I want this institution to be perceived as one of the premier institutions in the United States.”

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by tom moore on 11/19/2010 - 09:45 am.

    “he already has his eye on a consulting firm that can help identify practices that can be streamlined.”

    have you ever heard of a “consulting firm” or “business consultant” telling a business to hire more workers? it’s all a front for washing one’s hands of layoffs. like, “well, the third party experts said that this is the way to go…. my hands are tied…. it’s the efficient way of doing things”.

    the guy wouldn’t have had as easy a pass if he’d just said “obviously we want to keep labor costs as low as possible. and that will mean layoffs – or at least more, staff hiring freezes”.

    i work at the U. am clerical staff (on my break, don’t worry). and there is a manager/adminstrator for every couple of people doing real work here. but it’s the staff that will be cut – administrative positions and salaries have skyrocketed over the past, five years. full-time, hourly positions and their salaries have gone in the opposite direction.

    this self-described “capitalist” guy who tears up easily was picked for a reason. am sure he said that right things so everyone knows that the U will continue to try to weaken unions on campus, continue the trend of replacing workers who leave with temps and student workers, continue to depress compensation for staff while keeping the adminstrators fat and happy…..

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