Kaler to critics: look forward, not to the past

The president also said it’s time the University considers raising out-of-state tuition.

by Alexi Gusso

State legislators are in the process of increasing funds for the University of Minnesota in order to freeze tuition for the next two years. But as policymakers grant more money to the University, some are calling for more oversight and a stronger role in how the University spends state dollars.

In the midst of this, the Minnesota Daily sat down with University President Eric Kaler on Tuesday for its monthly “Kickin’ it with Kaler” interview.

Kaler, approaching the end of his second year in office, discussed criticism from legislators and public figures, out-of-state tuition and why he’s looking forward to the end of the year.


What was your response when you read former Gov. Arne Carlson’s op-ed piece in the Star Tribune criticizing how the University has handled administrative bloat?

I was disappointed. He describes a situation that was in the past and neglects the progress that we’ve made. He also deflects the discussion away from the really important fact, which is a $140 million disinvestment from the state of Minnesota and instead talks about administrative costs, which are a small fraction of our budget.

So I was disappointed that someone of his stature would not talk about the elements of state disinvestment and the importance of the state coming back to be our partner.


Last week, the Senate approved increased funding to the University. What was your response?

I’m very grateful that they have recognized our highest priority need, which is funding the tuition freeze for Minnesota resident undergraduates. I’m pleased that they’ve made an investment in our MnDRIVE initiative. They don’t match our request in terms of dollar amount, so we’ll be talking to the legislators about that aspect as they go into conference committee.


The House proposed giving $18 million less than the Senate for MnDRIVE research. What steps will the University take at the Legislature now to advocate for that research funding?

Again, it’s emphasizing the value of that research and the economic impact it will bring to the state because we’ll be able to leverage private funding and federal research funding with those dollars. I think it’s an important investment for the state to make.


Some legislators proposed amendments to the higher ed bill that would make state funds contingent on certain conditions, such as preventing state funds from paying for administrative salary bonuses. What did you think of those amendments?

Some of them are not necessary because of the progress we’ve made, but we’re all about being accountable for the money that we get, and we provide a report to the Legislature yearly. We’re happy to share that information with them.


Several legislators have shown a greater interest in attaching strings to University funding from the state. Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, has vowed to overhaul many areas of the University, including the selection of regents and how student fees are decided. What are your thoughts on the Legislature wanting more say?

I think the heart of the relationship between the University and the Legislature is the constitutional autonomy that the University has. It’s established in the state Constitution. I think legislators are certainly free to change the laws that impact the University, but I think the constitutional autonomy gives us freedoms that are difficult to take away.


Are you worried that the publicity these legislative conversations garner is damaging the University’s image?

I think some of the criticism we hear are rooted in the past and are no longer active and no longer true. But again, the University is a big part of the state of Minnesota, and it gets a lot of attention from our legislators.

One amendment was aimed at increasing out-of-state tuition. Is this something you’d support?

We’re taking a look at our outstate tuition costs. It was originally designed to attract out-of-state students to the University because we’re at a lower price point than in-state tuition in some states. But the fraction of out-of-state students has grown, and it may be time — it is time — to look at that tuition difference.

Again, bringing out-of-state students to Minnesota is an important thing to do. We’re a magnet for talent, and students stay and contribute to the Minnesota economy after they graduate.


Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, said recently that she “didn’t appreciate” the University’s approach to requesting increased state funds. She called it a “threat” and said it “wasn’t the way I like to work.” What do you think of her remarks?

We certainly did not mean to threaten the Legislature in any way, but when we formed our budget back in September … before we knew the leadership on the various committees, we talked to a lot of legislative leaders. They made it very clear that they wanted to know what they were getting for an increased investment in the University.

So we made it clear that what they were getting was an opportunity to stop the increases in tuition and an opportunity to invest in the research mission.

Our budget is very clear on that, and we certainly don’t mean to be a threat, but we do mean to show the linkage between state appropriations and tuition, and this does that clearly.


Is there any way the University could have gone about the request differently?

I think any other approach would have likely failed. I think asking for an increase in state appropriation without specifying what we would use it for would not be well-received.


What do you think of the House and governor’s bonding proposals?

We’re grateful to be included in the bonding bills. But the amount of money we are allocated for HEAPR [Higher Education Asset Preservation and Renovation] funds is far below what we requested and is below what is needed to adequately maintain the 29 million square feet that are in our inventory.


Funding for the Bell Museum has been continually left out of the University’s request, but it was included in the House bonding bill. Would you like to see a new one built?

Remember that the University included the Bell Museum at least twice in previous bonding requests, and it was vetoed twice by the governor. We have advocated for it in the past; we did put higher priority items on our list this year. But if the Bell Museum is funded, we will use those dollars to replace the building.


Are there other projects you’d like to see funded before the Bell?

The investment in HEAPR would be a higher priority for the University.


What are you most looking forward to as the school year comes to an end?

I will be happy when the legislative session is over, and I hope we’ll be able to celebrate a good investment in the University.

I’m looking forward to making my first trip to China in the summertime. I’m visiting some friends of the University, alumni and institutions that we have good collaborations with.