Kaler discusses tuition increase, building names, presidential transition

The Minnesota Daily interviewed University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler this week.

President Eric Kaler answers questions for the Minnesota Daily in his Morrill Hall office on Thursday, Feb. 14.

Tony Saunders

President Eric Kaler answers questions for the Minnesota Daily in his Morrill Hall office on Thursday, Feb. 14.

by Austen Macalus

The Minnesota Daily sat down with University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler this week to talk about the University’s tuition hike for non-resident, non-reciprocity students, the issue of controversial building names on campus and Kaler’s goals during his last semester as president. 

The University is asking for $87 million for the next two years [in the 2019 legislative session]. Do you expect that the state is going to meet that request?

We are always optimistic at this stage of the session. We are having good conversations and we hope those conversations will lead to a good outcome. But it’s a little too early to know what will lay out. The governor will lay out his budget request I think next Tuesday, … so we will know more when the governor puts out his numbers. But like I said, we are having good conversations, so we feel optimistic that we will be in the neighborhood of our request. But ask me again at the end of May. 

You said at the Capitol last month and reiterated at the Board [of Regents] meeting last week that, even if the legislative request gets fully funded, we could see another tuition increase for in-state students. What are your thoughts on another possible tuition increase for Minnesota students?

We’ve outlined a budget need for the biennium and we’re asking the state to help us with that, but we’re not asking the state to do all of the work. So we are envisioning proposing an inflation roughly 2 to 2.5 percent tuition increase. We think that’s an appropriate increase to share with the state in the costs of running the University for the next two years. We did not ask for a state allocation that would enable us to freeze tuition. We’ve tried that strategy in the past with quite mixed results, and it was clear from legislative conversations that the idea of linking a freeze directly to appropriations has not been always well-received. So we’re not using that strategy this year.

The University recently raised tuition for nonreciprocity, nonresident students — 10 percent for incoming students, 5.5 percent for students who are already here. Students have raised concerns about the impact on attracting out-of-state students and we saw a decline in the number of NRNR students who came [this academic year]. What is your response to those concerns and that trend?

Those are very real concerns and it’s a trend that we hope will not continue. It’s been the [Board of Regents’] view that out-of-state NRNR tuition should be in the range of the midpoint of the Big Ten, and I’ve supported a move in those tuition rates. But clearly it’s a pretty basic law that if the price of something goes up, typically the demand will go down. We’re clearly seeing that and we’re trying to balance an appropriate tuition rate relative to our peers, together with an attractive opportunity for NRNR students to come. There’s a sweet spot there, and we’re working to find it. 

The University is continuing to work on the draft proposal for gender identity, gender expression, names and pronouns, you’ve expressed support for that draft policy. There have been concerns also raised about how it [would] affect free speech. What are your thoughts on the policy?

I’m glad to see this policy has evolved to eliminate punishment of penalties for violating that policy — I thought that was clearly a step too far. On the other hand, I think people have a right to identify and request that they be identified by the right pronouns that they choose. I don’t think that interferes with anybody’s free speech. It feels to me like a simple common courtesy, if you will, to address somebody in a way that they want to be addressed, and that’s really what this policy is about. 

President-Designate Gabel was appointed as your successor in December. As she’s transitioning into that role, what advice or guidance have you shared with her?

We’ve had lots of conversations, and I’m not going to make public transcripts of those conversations obviously, but this is a wonderful University. It’s poised for great success. I feel very fortunate to have had a good run as president over the past eight years, and I think President Gabel will take us to even greater heights. 

As you enter the last segment of your presidency, what are some of your goals and priorities and things you want to make sure you get done before President-Designate Gabel takes over in July? 

One, a very high priority is to deal with the issues of buildings’ names. As you know, I’ve asked a committee to look very deeply at the history around the naming of buildings on campus — one in St. Paul, one on the West Bank and two on the East Bank. That report will get to me, I believe, [Friday]. I will read that and then make recommendations to the Board of Regents about a potential renaming or unnaming those buildings. It’s really important to me that I get that done and that the board takes action on it so it’s simply not an issue when President Gabel begins. 

I’m very focused on a successful legislative outcome. I think a stable and robust budget, which would be provided by the full $87 million state appropriation and a modest tuition increase, will enable her to have a strong base to move forward without artificial budget constraints that limited funding would pose for her. 

I’m very focused, and will continue in my year after as president emeritus, on continuing to bring our capital campaign down to the finish line. We’re about $3.2 billion of the way towards a $4 billion goal and I want to continue to help make that a reality. 

Those are probably the three big things for me in the next several months. … You know it would be wonderful if the Gopher men and women both went to the basketball Final Fours, but that’s a separate set of goals. 

You talked about the issue of building names. You’re going to be receiving the report from [Task Force on Building Names and Institutional History] tomorrow. What are your expectations for building names going forward? Do you expect that Coffman or any of the other buildings are going to be renamed?

Well, it’s premature for me to comment on that until I read the report. The purpose of the report is to give us a very solid and firm scholarly foundation on which to build a set of recommendations for the board. So I’m eager to receive and digest the report. 

Today is Thursday, but it’s also Valentine’s Day. Do you have any plans to celebrate?

My wife and I will be able to get away for a weekend in a couple of weeks, and we’re going to postpone our Valentine’s celebration until then. But as we’re preparing to move out of Eastcliff, we’ve been going through a whole lot of stuff and I was delighted to receive today a recycled Valentine’s card, which was the one that she gave me on our first Valentine’s day after after we were married. She’s kept a lot of stuff. 

Parts of the interview have been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.