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Kaler discusses renaming buildings on campus, mental health and reciprocity

The Minnesota Daily recently interviewed University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler.
President Eric Kaler answers questions for the Minnesota Daily in his Morrill Hall office on Thursday, Feb. 14.
Image by Tony Saunders
President Eric Kaler answers questions for the Minnesota Daily in his Morrill Hall office on Thursday, Feb. 14.

The Minnesota Daily sat down with University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler before spring break to talk about his recommendations to rename controversial buildings on campus, rising concern about student mental health and discussions about possible changes to reciprocity tuition. 

You gave a preliminary recommendation to change the name of Coffman Memorial Union and three other buildings on campus. I’m curious about how you came to that recommendation — why that is needed? 

As you know, we put together a process starting over a year ago led primarily by Dean John Coleman from [the College of Liberal Arts]. They really asked and answered the question about what should be the process that we follow to have a conversation about buildings’ names. We then impaneled another group, a task force of scholars on the Twin Cities campus, including an undergraduate student and a graduate student to explore from a historical perspective the facts, the history, really, around the contribution of these four men to the University. They did, I think, a superior job of looking at archives and generating a report that listing the reasons both for and against renaming those buildings. And in all four cases, they recommended renaming, amongst other remedies … I reviewed those and reached the same conclusion. Certainly these men made contribution to the University of Minnesota — they were historical figures — but there also were actions and activities that didn’t represent the views [and] the ideals the University should put forward. 

So I then generated preliminary recommendations to the board, hoping to open the conversation more broadly around the report findings and recommendations. They were presented to the board on [March 8] as a preliminary recommendation with the opportunity for dialogue. That dialogue was harsher than I expected in tone and it was also limited in time such that it wasn’t possible to fully explore all of the elements that the task force brought forward. The chair of the board and I are dedicated to finding a way to continue that conversation. But again, I recognize unambiguously the scholarship and integrity of that task force and respect the findings they brought forward. 

Like you said, several regents at the meeting expressed concern about the report [and] about the renaming process. Did you think those criticisms were fair about the process the University went through? 

Criticisms are exactly that: criticisms. Do I understand why board members would think that a committee that recommends changing names would have broader representation than just from the Twin Cities campus? I understand that. But again, this committee has expertise from a historical point of view and it was never designed to represent the thoughts of Minnesota across all points of view. The purpose of bringing this forward to the regents was to get those broader points of view, but have those points of view based on historical analysis. 

Going forward, do you expect that the buildings will be renamed — that the regents will go through with the renaming process? 

From the comments and statements at the board meeting, I think any observer would believe that we do not have seven votes on the board to rename. So I think right now if we took a vote, it probably would not pass. But again, more conversation and dialogue needs to be had. 

Switching over to the legislative session. Since the last time we talked, Gov. [Tim] Walz released his budget [as well as his revised budget plans]. It proposed less than half of the U’s $87 million request for the next two years [and the revised budget still falls short of the University’s request]. How is that going to affect the U if that’s the number they settle on?

Clearly, we put a lot of effort in developing our legislative request at the $87 million dollar level. We didn’t just pick that number out of the air. It reflects a very detailed and comprehensive analysis of what our revenue needs will be in the next biennium to fund things like library subscriptions and utility costs and interest payments and faculty and staff compensation — the things that we do. And so pretty obviously receiving less that amount really has only two possible consequences. One, we would have to reduce our spending, which means reducing the investment in the quality of education the University delivers — which I think is not the right step for the state of Minnesota. Or, asking students for increased tuition revenue, which I am [loathe] to do. So we’re at the process of continuing conversations with our legislative leaders and we do recognize the governor will issue a revised budget on [March 22] … but we’ll see if he moves on the number he’s penciled in for the U. 

If the U’s $87 million [budget request], even with the revised budget proposal, isn’t met, is that going to mean a tuition increase that’s higher than the 2-2.5 percent that was talked about?

It’s a little bit too early to see what numbers we would need. But clearly if we have a shortfall in state support, it puts pressure on the tuition numbers. But again, I recommend and the board decides what tuition needs to be and I don’t think there’s a large appetite on anybody’s part for what I would say is a substantial — well above inflationary — increase. 

One of the things that the regents also discussed at their conference … is reciprocity and what could happen to reciprocity tuition. Where is that conversation at? Do you expect going forward that reciprocity might change? 

We are developing a detailed analysis of both the history and legal obligation around reciprocity, as well as the financial impact if we were to make a change. So that is certainly something we are examining carefully. Again on the revenue side, the challenge for my administration — which we’ve taken on since day one — is how do we do bold things that change the revenue and cost equation at the U. As I said at the retreat and [the Minnesota Daily] reported earlier, there’s a long list of things that we’ve done to become more efficient and raise existing revenue. The list of potential opportunities is not limitless. Certainly one of them is: What is the financial arrangement around reciprocity, and I think it behooves us to take a look at it. 

Regents … and student representatives to the regents raised concerns about mental health on campus. That was one of the three points of the student [report to the regents]. Can you talk a little bit about some of those concerns about mental health and what the University is doing and will do going forward?

Well as you know, we’ve made substantial advancements in treatment and [cures] for our students. But we’re also facing a situation in which an increasing number of our students come to the University with a mental health diagnosis of some kind, or a history of mental health [challenges], and at some point it’s not realistic to expect the University to be able to provide unlimited mental health care for a growing and large number of students. So I think we will need to see in the coming years a University with a commitment to providing help in crisis, providing emergency intervention, counseling, perhaps some ongoing wellness support, but also recognizing that if a student has an ongoing mental health condition that requires treatment, therapy or pharmaceutical treatment, we’re going to have to look to private insurance and private care to carry that. It’s not within the scope of the University’s ability to provide unlimited care for everybody. 

Winter has been dragging on, how have you been dealing with the winter?

You might remember I was a graduate student here and I graduated in 1982. And the winter from 1981 to ’82 was one of the harshest on record. Over the the past few years, I’ve been telling more recent residents of Minnesota that back in the day we had real winter. Well, we’ve had real winter this year. I think the near-record snowfall in February, followed by dreary and gloomy is not fun. It’s impacted our operations on the Twin Cities. We’ve had to close, and [we’ve] canceled classes [an] unusually large number of times. … So it’s been impactful on our schedules, but it also, I think, is fair to say it has been impactful on people’s moods and outlooks. We’re used to a winter with some snow and crisp, bright sunshine-y days, and this is different for us. So I think it’s been a heavy load and I, together with everybody, will look forward to arrival of spring. 

I would include a note of gratitude to our workers in our physical plant and our employees who have to work outside to make sure the campus is accessible and safe. I’m very grateful for their work. 

Students are coming back from spring break. What advice or recommendations or words of wisdom do you have for them as they enter their last leg of the spring semester?

It is the final lap of the school year and, as always, I encourage our students to take care of themselves and take care of each other. Look out for one another. Be kind and thoughtful in dealing with your colleagues. And make smart decisions. 

*Parts of the interview have been lightly edited for grammar and clarity, including adding information about Gov. Walz’s revised budget proposal.  

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