On any other day, Eric Kaler’s installation as the 16th president of the University of Minnesota would have dominated the headlines locally. But Friday, July 1, most Minnesotans were preoccupied to have awakened to the somewhat surreal news that state government did in fact shut down.
Under the circumstances, Kaler, the former provost and senior vice president of Stony Brook University in New York, would have been forgiven if he’d clambered off of his brand-new hot seat and gotten back on a plane destined for parts less rancorous.
The new U president, however, seems like anything but a shrinking violet. He talks fast, offers decisive opinions and pokes fun at himself. Those disagreeable nabobs in St. Paul might want to keep a lookout; he seems capable of commandeering something as sleepy as a legislative hearing.
Kaler, a U of M alum — he received his PhD in chemical engineering here in 1982 — really, really wanted this job. That much was apparent when he interviewed for the post last fall, and it came through loud and clear Friday morning, when he took a few minutes out from settling in to his new office to talk to MinnPost.
MinnPost: Thank you for making a hole in what I imagine is one of the busiest mornings of your life.
Eric Kaler: It is a little bit hectic here, but always glad to talk.
MP: The shutdown and the budget are on all our minds. What thoughts do you have about keeping the U thriving?
EK: We obviously have a lot of challenges in front of us. We need to work internally on our efficiencies and doing things as effectively as we can. Honestly, the U has made great progress in that under President [Robert] Bruininks, and I’m sure we’ll continue to do that. And I have some ideas that I think will be helpful.
But we also need to be sure to engage the people of the state of Minnesota and talk clearly and effectively about how important this university is, and really get a conversation going with our citizens and our legislative leaders to help identify opportunities for investment in the university to help us continue to be the engine of creativity and education for the state.
MP: One of the things that I heard you talk about when you were here interviewing was — and you can phrase this better — better leveraging the university’s intellectual products and research.
EK: The university really is an intellectual and social leader for the state, and we need to take more advantage of the creative things that we produce. The easy ones to talk about are the intellectual property that comes out of our science, engineering and medicine activities.
But there are an enormous number of creative outputs in the arts, social sciences and the humanities that we really need to grow and to partner with the people of the state to enrich their lives.
MP: Have you had conversations with people about Minnesota’s workforce needs?
EK: I’ve had what I would characterize as preliminary discussions about workforce needs going forward. I have had more than preliminary conversations with the incoming chancellor at [the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System, or MNSCU], and he and I are committed to working together to make sure higher education in the state, across both systems, is as responsive and as relevant as it possibly can be.
MP: You are at the helm not just of what we think of as the U of M proper, the Twin Cities campuses, but of how many campuses statewide?
EK: The [four outstate] campuses are very important to us. Duluth is a tremendous resource, comprehensive in offering a full range of degree programs, and of course the national championship hockey team, which we are all very proud of.
Morris has terrific opportunities for a liberal arts education in a smaller setting. Crookston: obviously, a more rural experience, a smaller school, but with some important signature programs.
Rochester, I think, is going to be very important in that part of the state and provide us with some good linkages to industry and to the folks at Mayo.
I’m very much aware that I’m president of the University of Minnesota system and I’m going to be on those campuses working with those chancellors and the faculty, staff and students there in as much depth as I’m doing on the Twin Cities campuses.
My first hundred days or so until my inauguration in September are really going to be focused on learning and listening and talking to a great many people, and I do plan to visit all those campus locations.
MP: What has changed the least since you were a University of Minnesota student?
EK: That’s a good question. You know, I think it is the focus on being excellent in a variety of programs. When I was here as a student, chemical engineering was an excellent program and it’s still an excellent program. I think the dedication of the faculty, staff and students to educational and creative excellence is the same. I don’t think that’s changed a bit.
MP: What’s most striking coming back as a difference?
EK: I think the beauty of the campus. The physical plant is just gorgeous! Of course, I had the advantage of coming in the summertime when everything is green and blooming.
And I also sense that the U is now much more focused on providing an excellent undergraduate experience. The facilities for instruction I think are much nicer than I remember, and I think our ability to provide an excellent student experience is higher than it was.
MP: According to Twitter, the first thing you did this morning was open your Macintosh.
EK: That’s absolutely true. I’m pretty much focused on electronic communications these days. I’m always looking at my e-mail.
MP: Does that make you a social media guy?
EK: You know, I am probably just a little bit outside the social media generation. I prefer telephones and e-mail, but my office and I are certainly going to be on the web in a variety of ways. It’s just about trying to communicate my goals for the institution and being open and responsive to the feedback and suggestions of the community.
MP: Anything else you wanted to touch on?
EK: I’m not sure we talked about just how excited I am to be here, how optimistic I am about the future. We’ve got some difficult budget times to square away, but this is an excellent institution. I’m incredibly proud to be its new president, and I’m optimistic and looking forward to a future that’s going to bring many layers and levels of greatness to the university.