Kaler responds to admin. criticism, funding

Kaler disputed claims made in a recent article on administrative costs.

Alexi Gusso

The Minnesota Daily sat down with University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler last week.

The president, who’s currently working with his second Legislature since coming into office, discussed Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget proposal, administrative spending and the recent criticism stemming from a December Wall Street Journal article that used the University to exemplify problems in higher education spending.

Are you pleased with Gov. Dayton’s budget proposal even though it doesn’t allot the full amount you requested in your 2014-15 budget?

Yes, I think the governor is showing strong support. While we’re disappointed that the accountability portion of that request was not included, we recognize this is just the start of conversations with the Legislature, and it’s a good place to start.

The $80 million is enough to cover the tuition freeze and the research initiative, and I think it also includes $1.4 million toward our loan relief program for people in greater Minnesota who have medical or veterinary degrees.

What it does leave out is the $11.5 million we requested for the accountability portion.

What was your initial reaction to the Dec. 28 Wall Street Journal article?

It was very disappointing. We spent a lot of time with the reporter; we gave him lots of data and unfortunately he didn’t create a balanced view of the University of Minnesota.

In light of the criticism to the University brought forth by the Journal article, how has the conversation with state lawmakers changed regarding the 2014-15 budget?

I think state lawmakers are smart people. They’re not going to make decisions based on a newspaper article that wasn’t balanced, but they do have questions. I actually view this as a great opportunity to talk about what the University is doing. It gives us the opportunity to dispel some of the great urban myths about the University and how we operate.

What do you think students should take away from the article?

There are a variety of statements in [the article] that are misleading or out of context. For example, he criticized hiring 1,000 administrators. Really?

Well, 354 of the 1,000 people have the title of “professor” or “associate professor” or “assistant professor.” So, one-third of those have titles that aren’t administrative.

Secondly, if you were writing an article about costs at the University, would you ask who pays for these people you’re hiring?

I would assume tax money and tuition.

You would, and you’d be wrong. And that’s the problem, because people don’t understand that the reporter didn’t make an effort to educate his readers that the University has a very large research component that’s paid for by grant dollars, not state dollars, and not tuition dollars.

Fifty-three percent of the salaries of the remaining two-thirds of these folks who aren’t faculty was paid for by non-state, non-tuition dollars. And so that leaves about 300 or so people that were hired on state or tuition dollars.

You might ask what they did — some of them are librarians who run the state library program, some of them are study abroad advisers who help students have a good study abroad experience, some are directors of clinical trial activity, which is an investment the University makes to help leverage research dollars. So the fact that none of that got reported is disappointing.

Throughout your time at the University, you’ve said that cutting administrative spending is a priority to you. Is that process happening at a rate you’re satisfied with?

I’m not a very patient person, so I would say I’m never really satisfied, but we are making progress, and people are working hard at this. We will get this done.

What are some solutions, immediate and long term, that are in the works to reduce administrative costs?

We have purchasing improvements that saved about $16 million; we’ve closed two administrative offices, which have saved $2.2 million. We have now a variety of things that are going through operational excellence activities that will continue to enable us to generate savings. Probably the single largest element is in information technology where our new VP, Scott Studham, has been able to reduce the number of help desks and streamline operations.

There really is not an area that we’re not looking at.

Anything else to add?

I highly encourage students to get involved with the legislative advocacy activity. The governor has put on the table, in agreement with the support of our proposal, to fund the University at a level that allows us to freeze resident undergraduate tuition for two years. I think that’s a really big deal.

But if legislators don’t hear from students and their families in support of that, then they may not support it. Since I’ve been here, I’ve never seen a better opportunity or a better cause for students to rally around and support the University.