Kaler talks recent news, looks back on his first year

University President Eric Kaler talks about the bonding bill, the new athletics director and reflects on his first academic year at the helm.

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler reflected on his first academic year on the job. It’s been a hectic year, a very interesting year. But I’m pretty pleased with where we are.

Image by Mark Vancleave

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler reflected on his first academic year on the job. “It’s been a hectic year, a very interesting year. But I’m pretty pleased with where we are.”

by Dina Elrashidy


The Minnesota Daily sat down with President Eric Kaler for the last time this semester to talk about the bonding bill, the new athletics director and his first year on the job.

I know you were at the Legislature for a last-minute meeting Wednesday, what was that about?

Well, you know, we really are trying to get the bonding bill shaped in a way that’s favorable to the University. So I thought it’d be useful for me to go over and make a couple of visits on what promises to be the last week of the session. You know, reiterate the things that the University needs to have on this bonding bill, the value that we bring — things they’ve all heard before, but I wanted to refresh their memory.

How is everything shaping up with the bonding bill? What do you think will be the outcome this week?

It’s very hard to say. I don’t think anybody can give you a prediction of what will happen. It’s a very political situation. Some people want a small bonding bill. Some people want a big bonding bill. Some people want community-based things, and other people want infrastructure and roads. So right now it’s a very — I guess I would characterize it as — a very fluid situation.

I think everybody understands the needs of the University. It’s just a matter of where they can put them in the overall priorities, what other constituents need. And of course in the discussion of how big the bill will ultimately be, people recognize the need; it’s just a matter of getting it appropriately placed on the priorities.

What are your thoughts on newly appointed Regent Tom Devine and his qualifications?

I was pleased to see his appointment. He’s been engaged with the University for many years. … He’s passionate about the University [and] graduated from the U. [I’m] looking forward to working with him.

Norwood Teague, the new athletics director, will begin in July. What will be the first steps in transitioning him into that job?

Well, we have put a lot of thought into that. A principal part of his job will be outside of the University. The opportunity for him to connect with friends of Gopher Athletics, donors and boosters is going to be very important. Inside the department, clearly he needs to come and evaluate how the department is running now, line that up with his expectations for what the athletics department should be doing.

 We also need to embark on a strategic planning process for facilities so we have a clear understanding of what facilities upgrades we need. Your newspaper had a picture of ducks on a track this morning, which is one area that needs work. And I think those will keep him pretty busy, both inside and outside and facilities. Those are the things I see as the three big things to work on right away.

Have you had any discussions with him about the long-term vision of the athletics department?

Absolutely. It’s congruent with mine. He wants student-athletes to be successful so we’ll have success on the field or the court, but also we’ll have academic success. So graduation rate and academic progress is very important to him, as it is to me. We both want Gopher athletics to be competitive in the Big Ten across the board — that includes football and men’s basketball.

I think we’re in agreement that the number of sports we have now and the value and excellence we have in the nonrevenue and Olympic sports is an important part of Gopher athletics. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

Teague will make $400,000 in base salary, which is more than Joel Maturi is making. Do you feel this pay is justified?

I actually knew you were going to ask that question. I don’t know if you have this, but this is a survey of Big Ten athletics directors’ salaries, and you’ll see that that number will put him right in the middle, right around the median and the mean for Big Ten athletics directors — $400,000 base and a bonus structure of up to a $100,000. I anticipate that he’ll be able to earn some of those bonuses, but it’ll take him a few years to get the programs to the level that all of those will be. But even at that total of $500,000, that’s still at the middle range. You know, it’s a Big Ten athletics director job. Those are the salaries that pay for that kind of job.

Are you concerned that large salaries in the athletics department detract from the University’s academic mission?

You know, we’re in a market. If we’re going to recruit people to do the kind of job we want done in that department, those are the salaries that are paid. Obviously, salaries are a topic of discussion across the country now, but I believe we have to pay competitive salaries in order to get quality people.

New student representatives for the Board of Regents will be announced May 1. I’ve heard you were once a University student representative. What was that experience like?

I was a student rep to the Board of Regents in 1981, I think. It was really interesting to see how the University worked at that level. [It was] very interesting to see the personality for the regents then and the political environment both inside and outside the University. It was a fascinating opportunity for me.

What advice do you have for those chosen?

I think it’s a great experience to listen and learn. I would encourage them to not be shy. The board takes very seriously the comments that the student reps offer. They sit on all the committees. Their participation is important to the workings of the board. They should not underestimate the influence and power they have over the board deliberation.

You tasked a group to look at issues with the greek community. What was the impetus in creating that?

As I arrived all those nine months ago … the situation in the greek community, particularly around greek housing but also more broadly about engagement in the greek community … seemed to me an area where the University could do a better job.

As a result of that and conversations with [Vice Provost for Student Affairs] Jerry Rinehart and other student leaders, we decided that an appropriate thing to do was bring a really strong committee … together to really address problems primarily focused on housing but also other connections the greek community has with the University. It’s a really good group. … The leaders of the male and female communities are there. And I look forward to some robust recommendations and actions going forward.

It’s not something that started when I showed up. There’s been a long conversation around greek housing prior to my arrival and certainly in understanding the need to engage the problem.

Now that the liquor bill has passed through the Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton has said he will sign it, what do you think of the reality of selling alcohol in TCF Bank Stadium? Do you foresee a change in the environment on campus with the Vikings potentially being here and alcohol sales? Do you have any concerns?

First off, of course what the bill does is give the regents within the parameter of the bill to set policies so it is a regent activity … I can’t do it unilaterally. I expect that they will approve the provisions, will approve sales along with provisions of the law. That provides for sales in the suites, which is consistent with many other stadiums, and the opportunity to have a limited area where alcohol will be available to the general public, probably through halftime at the Gopher games.

I think having it in that confined area provides the opportunity for fans who don’t want to have anything to do with alcohol at a college football game to have that experience. It also provides an opportunity for people who want to have a beer during the game to go down to that area and have it. I think it’s a good compromise between the various interests around the subject. And I think it’ll be a workable solution. We’ll try to get that set up for the fall. As we go forward, it’ll probably get tweaked a bit as we learn more about what works and what doesn’t. I think it’ll be a good outcome.

In terms of the Vikings being there, our expectation is that we’ll be able to sell beer and wine during the Vikings games.

You will finish your first academic year in July. What are your thoughts on the job so far?

It’s been a hectic year, a very interesting year. But I’m pretty pleased with where we are. We’ve made some critical hires. We’ve made good progress on budgetary control. We’ve made good progress in operational excellence discussions on things we can do better. So I’m comfortable with where we are nearing the end of the first year.

What have you learned?

I’ve learned that people are passionate about their University. People want us to be good. People are very concerned about cost but generally aren’t willing to trade cost for excellence. People do want this to be an excellent university — one that provides a great education, one that’s home to tremendous researchers, tremendous innovation and advances in health care and other society impacts that we have.