NY legislators praise Kaler’s style

The presidential finalist is known for his negotiation and collaboration qualities.

James Nord

Immense budget deficits and declining state higher education spending arenâÄôt strangers to New York or Minnesota.
Stony Brook University Provost Eric Kaler has woven through the legislative minefield of higher education funding in New York for four years. HeâÄôs guaranteed to face a similar situation as the University of MinnesotaâÄôs next president.
The Board of Regents  chose Kaler as the only finalist to take President Bob BruininksâÄô position after he retires in June. Kaler visited campus to meet with students and the administration Wednesday.
If selected president, heâÄôll work against a $5.8-billion state budget deficit and a Legislature that has increasingly taken from higher education, including a $36-million cut to the UniversityâÄôs budget last year.
New York faces a projected $9-billion deficit for 2011-2012. The State University of New York  system, of which Stony Brook  is a part, experienced a $424-million reduction in government aid over the past two fiscal years.
Kaler operated within that reality. He said Friday that working with lawmakers could be a university presidentâÄôs most important job.
Two New York legislators Kaler interacted with most as Stony Brook provost were Ken LaValle and John Flanagan, both members of the Senate Higher Education Committee.
The Republican lawmakers praised KalerâÄôs style of negotiation and collaboration while working to craft policy.
âÄúAs I often say, individuals have either good kindergarten experiences or they donâÄôt,âÄù LaValle said. âÄúI think that Eric has had a good kindergarten experience. He knows how to work well with other people. IâÄôve watched him as the provost on the campus from afar.âÄù
Personally, Flanagan said heâÄôs had discussions with Kaler about their children. They discussed FlanaganâÄôs sonâÄôs decision to major in chemical engineering, KalerâÄôs specialty.
Kaler and his wife Karen donated a combined $1,350 to LaValle and FlanaganâÄôs campaigns between 2007 and 2008.
Last session, Kaler worked extensively on passing the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act, Stony Brook Assistant Governmental Relations Director Monica Mahaffey said.
PHEEIA, the most recent iteration of a solution to New YorkâÄôs higher education funding woes, was heavily touted by the Stony Brook administration before it was ultimately defeated last legislative session.
The legislation, introduced by New York Gov. David Paterson, would have wrested control over the SUNY system from lawmakers and put it in the hands of school administrators, giving them the opportunity to set tuition rates, enter into public-private building partnerships and engage in more collective purchasing.
âÄúIt would do wonders for Stony Brook and the State University of New York,âÄù Mahaffey said. âÄúIt would enable the university to invest in more faculty and âĦ to spend more time on research, which is what weâÄôre all about here.âÄù
But some legislators see a different side of PHEEIA. New York State Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee, said allowing differential tuition would stunt access and could stop lower-income students from being able to afford school.
âÄúFirst it was SUNY empowerment,âÄù Glick said. âÄúThen it was this PHEEIA thing because they included words like âÄòinnovationâÄô and youâÄôre not supposed to be against innovation or youâÄôre a troglodyte. The naming things are all marketing tools.âÄù
Kaler is also part of a team to create âÄúan enormous research nucleusâÄù between three laboratories on Long Island, including some in Stony Brook, Flanagan said.
During the 2009 legislative session, Mahaffey said she spent a day with Kaler at the state Capitol in Albany.
She called him âÄútireless.âÄù
âÄúWe met with as many people as we could in one day,âÄù she said. âÄúWe went office to office to office, conversation to conversation.âÄù