Kaler talks MOOCs, Legislature and gun control

He will give his State of the University address Thursday.

University President Eric Kaler in his Morrill Hall office Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013. Kaler will deliver his second State of the University address Thursday.

Image by Bridget Bennett

University President Eric Kaler in his Morrill Hall office Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013. Kaler will deliver his second State of the University address Thursday.

by Alexi Gusso


Days before University President Eric Kaler gives his second State of the University address, the Minnesota Daily sat down with the second-year president to discuss recent news at the University.

Kaler touched on new e-learning initiatives, criticism and support at the state Capitol and his pilot program for a year-round calendar.


Last week, the U announced it would partner with Coursera to make its own massive open online courses (MOOCs). Will these courses be available for credit in the future?

Right now we’re not offering them for credit, and you can ask the provost about some details, but I believe she has some conversations going about making them part of existing courses which would let you get credit. But again, the structure now is that these are free, and we’re not giving credit.

It’s a very rapidly evolving landscape; MOOCs are the talk of higher education right now, and we’ll see how they evolve.


Is the U exploring further e-learning options?

Again, the provost has a broad suite of approaches around e-learning; the Coursera engagement is just part of what we’re doing. We’ve had tens of thousands of registrations in online courses at the U over the past year, and we think it’s a great opportunity to provide additional access for undergraduate, graduate and professional students and in helping to move through our programs more quickly.


What was your reaction to the turnout at the Support the U Day at the Capitol earlier this month?

I was very excited to see the students there. I think we had about 350 students and staff from the University, and I think it made an impression. I think our legislative leaders were glad to see these individuals and were eager to hear from them.


Why do you think there was a larger turnout this year?

I think people are realizing that student voices make a difference.

We’ve been working pretty hard to get that point across, and it seems to be resonating with more of the students now than it has in the past.


Rep. Gene Pelowski [DFL-Winona] has been arguably one of the most critical voices to the University this session. He claims the University often talks solely of its accomplishments and “where it appears to have great difficulty is showing us where it’s had to make tough choices.” Do you think the University has been light on addressing its problems in the past?

Well, first off, I am proud to talk about the successes of the University. It’s a great university, and we’ve managed this downturn in state funding I think as well as could be done. But we have made a lot of hard choices. Talk to your colleagues about the cost of undergraduate tuition at the University. That was a hard choice to make. Students are feeling the burden of the state disinvestments in a very real way.

I think that’s a shame. I think the state should support this university more generously; it’s a great public research university and the public needs to have a role in helping us educate students.

We took salary reductions; we’ve left positions open; classes are, in some cases, larger than they would be ideally; we don’t have as many graduate students supported as I would like.

[There are] many other examples of hard decisions that we’ve made to deal with budgetary challenges.


Have attitudes at the Legislature toward the University changed at all since it convened?

I think the legislators are generally supportive of the University. They want us to do well. There certainly is concern about our administrative costs, and we’re doing all we can to tell our story of effectiveness and efficiency better around that subject.


Now that you’ve spent time at the Legislature, what is your outlook for the University’s requested biennial budget?

I’m always an optimist. I think much will depend on the overall structure of the budget. What are the budget increases? What is the outcome of the tax discussion around decreased revenue? But I do believe the University will fare well.


Besides the higher education conversations, what bills and debates have you been following the most?

Well, clearly most of my energy is around the higher education agenda; I think you might expect that. But I’ve been watching the gun control conversations because that could have an impact on the University, but my principal focus is on higher ed.


How do you think the gun control debate impacts the University?

Well, I think the ability to carry a weapon on campus is problematic to lots of people in our community and how that would impact the campus life is something open to interpretation. So I think that could play a role in the conversation.


At the last Board of Regents meeting, you announced the piloting of a year-round calendar in two College of Design programs. Do you expect more programs to follow suit?

I think our first step is in the College of Design. I’m a scientist and scientists like to do experiments, and so this is an experiment to see how we can deliver these courses, how much student demand there is, how effective and efficient the idea is. I think that if this is successful, we’ll see other programs move in that direction, but it needs to make sense for the program and make sense for the students.


What do you think of potential complications for students and faculty?

The biggest one for faculty is arranging their workload and distributing it appropriately over those 12 months. Of course there are some challenges around financial aid being available for that 12-month period, and the University may have to make some adjustments in how we award financial aid to make it work for the students.


Anything else to add?

It’s really important over the next few months that students and their families are in touch with their legislative representatives to help advocate for support to the University. It really makes a difference when the legislators hear from their constituents, and Support the U Day needs to not be just a one-time event; it needs to be something that people are paying attention to all through the session.