Kaler eyes U from behind the scenes

The University’s next president is making quiet monthly visits to the school this spring.

Conor Shine

As University of Minnesota President Bob Bruininks publicly campaigns for the school before the state Legislature and governor, his successor, Eric Kaler, is working behind the scenes to prepare to take charge in July.

Kaler, currently the provost at Stony Brook University in New York, has already met with deans and lunched with undergraduates during the two unpublicized campus visits heâÄôs taken since being named president in November.

And although heâÄôs planning monthly visits to campus, Kaler is careful to avoid the limelight because, he said, he wants to respect BruininksâÄô role as acting president.

“The University can only have one president at a time,” Kaler said. “It should speak with one voice and that voice should be President Bruininks. My goal on this is to be helpful and not be in the way.”

This means avoiding public events like Board of Regents meetings and graduation and waiting until heâÄôs in office to begin formally working with legislators and the business community.

Kaler is watching the current legislative session unfold from afar. Although heâÄôll have to live with any cuts lawmakers hand down, Kaler said he has no plans to get directly involved.

Bruininks said Kaler will receive weekly briefings on the UniversityâÄôs legislative dealings, and heâÄôll be consulted on any long-term decisions the current administration makes.

Bruininks was adamant that his administration will make the final decisions on the next yearâÄôs budget, but he said heâÄôs leaving major positions, like senior vice president of the Academic Health Center, open so Kaler can choose his own leadership team.

“I think we owe it to President-designate Kaler and the academic community to do this together,” Bruininks said. “We donâÄôt need any fumbles right now. We need to make sure this gets done right.”

Navigating presidential transitions can be tricky, said Stephen Trachtenberg, president emeritus at George Washington University, because the change can create a sense of apprehension.

“Every dean, every vice president is wondering, âÄòWho is this person? How will I get along with them?âÄô,” he said.

The outgoing president needs to avoid creating problems for his successor, Trachtenberg said, but the incoming president must stay respectful of the incumbent and his decisions.

If the process, which Trachtenberg described as “ritualistic,” is handled carefully through planning and communication, many of the problems caused by sloppy transitions âÄî like bruised egos and a loss of continuity for the school âÄî can be avoided, he said.

“The old president has to say wonderful and welcoming things to his successor. The new president has to say congratulatory things about the contributions of his predecessor,” he said. “ThereâÄôs sort of a tribal dance that has to take place.”

Kaler will be back on campus in early February and plans to visit for a few days every three weeks.

He admits thereâÄôs a lot to take in. “ItâÄôs a big job,” Kaler said.

But he said he is approaching the transition with enthusiasm, reading local newspapers and exploring University websites in addition to in-person meetings to familiarize himself with the school.

A transition committee made up of administrators, deans, faculty and staff will help plan his visits and who heâÄôll meet with. The group has also compiled a large binder with reports detailing aspects of the UniversityâÄôs operation for Kaler to study.

Kaler said understanding how University business gets done is his top priority, and heâÄôs focusing on learning the budget model and how funding flows through the system. HeâÄôs already adopted some of the presidential jargon, talking about doing “more with less” and finding ways to “streamline” the UniversityâÄôs operation.

Aidan Sullivan, an officer of the WomenâÄôs Student Activist Collective, said she was impressed with Kaler after meeting with him in December and complimented his listening ability.

While various student leaders introduced themselves over lunch and shared what they liked and disliked about the University, Sullivan said Kaler was attentive and took notes on what each said.

Sullivan said she tried to convey to Kaler that the University should be a place of learning first and should be affordable to attend, something she said he was receptive to.

“I was just amazed that before he even becomes president he wants to sit down with student leaders,” she said. “He was mostly listening, which I appreciated. It really seemed like he was very interested.”