Kaler talks tech upgrade, task force, Tubby

He also discussed Tubby Smith’s extended contract and his hopes for the class of 2016.

Emma Nelson

After a summer of major policy decisions, administrative changes and plans for the University of Minnesota’s future, President Eric Kaler sat down with the Minnesota Daily for the last time before beginning his second year. Among other things, he discussed his work on advancing higher education in Minnesota, his hopes for the incoming freshman class and the Olympic sport he can’t miss.

At the last Board of Regents meeting, you asked that your proposed salary increase be donated to a scholarship fund. How many scholarships will result? Is this something you plan to continue in the future?

It’s about $18,000 a year, and that will go into the University scholarship fund. That will be used however the admissions people see it best. So it could go to two or 2 1/2 full scholarships or half-a-dozen at three grand. That’s up to them to use. It’s no strings attached.

Another big part of the meeting was approving an $83 million technology upgrade. What are the next steps? Will you be involved in the process?

Not on a day-to-day basis, but I will get reports periodically; I would say probably at least monthly and, as it ramps up, at least once every two weeks. It’s a big lift for us. It’s extremely important that we bring these systems up to date.

We probably, frankly, have gone a little bit too long between upgrades and so this is a big one to do. Ultimately, the relevant vice presidents — HR, IT, finance — will be most involved in that, and it’s a pretty well-developed structure of oversight and engagement with people who use these systems.

Following the meeting, you left for the regents’ retreat to do more long-term planning. One topic up for discussion was the changing landscape of higher education and the role of research universities in that. That’s a pretty big topic — what did those discussions mean for the University of Minnesota?

Universities have been in business for 700 or more years, and one reason that they stay in business is that they don’t change very quickly. But the rate of change in higher education now, I think, is as fast as it’s ever been in history. And research … universities like us need to engage faculty and staff to embrace that change and use it to our advantage.

Technology change is probably the most important driver right now, whether it’s massive online courses and how those are going to be engaged in our curriculum, using technology to enable better learning. We have progress in that area, but I think it’s a change that, in this coming academic year, the faculty and staff and administration need to work pretty aggressively to embrace and use these changes to benefit University of Minnesota students.

You are part of the Itasca Task Force that is working on advancing higher education in Minnesota. One aspect of this is telling the University’s story. How will the University better communicate its goals and accomplishments in the future?

We have a very good story to tell about the value we bring to the state of Minnesota and the people of Minnesota, but more people need to hear it. And having people in the business community amplify [that] for us and … communicate about the value that business sees in having a very strong University will be important.

The task force has the goal of creating partnerships with the business community to identify their work force needs. How will this work for students whose major doesn’t have a clear career path? What types of business partnerships do you envision for those fields of study?

The University is about a lot more than training people for jobs. We are educating people to be critical thinkers, to create the economy and the jobs of the future, not just the jobs that are here now. And so that is a really important part of what we do. But doing that with a mind towards “What am I going to do next,” I think is an important thing. If someone is studying art and language, interacting with a cultural group, a theater, a museum or a government agency where those skills are useful, brings good experience for the student and benefits the organization by having a smart person engaged.

The task force also identified the goal of raising graduation rates. How will this be done — particularly for students who stay an additional year or two because they’re paying their own way?

My goal is to have this institution be accessible to all qualified Minnesotans. And when students and their families have financial challenges that make paying for college a burden, we are working to create — both by internal allocation and by philanthropy — scholarship funds to enable that burden to be lowered. That’s the ultimate solution. If you are taking a full load, all of our majors can be done in four years, and my strong advice is to push forward and get it finished, because every year that you’re here, there’s a cost of living and all the ancillary things that go with that. I think the sooner you can get that degree and get on to the next chapter of your life, the better.

The incoming freshman class is one of the University’s largest ever, and the most prepared academically. What are you hoping to see from them during their time at the University? What kinds of changes can they expect to see during the next four years?

They’ll clearly see a changed physical campus as our ongoing construction is wrapped up and we begin new projects, but I really look for them to have a transformative time. I mean, this four-year period is one of enormous growth and change in a student, and I hope that they take every advantage of the University to maximize that change, to learn and to grow and to succeed.

Switching gears, Tubby Smith’s contract was recently extended through 2016-2017. What do you hope he will accomplish in the next four years?

Tubby has built a good foundation. We clearly need to be more competitive in the Big Ten, and I look forward to him to be able to do that. But I also focus, for all of our sports, on providing a good experience for our student-athletes, for graduation success, for career success after the U and after athletics. I want all our coaches to have that focus, and I know that Tubby does.

Have you been watching the Olympics? What’s your favorite event?

I have to say, watching the women gymnasts is like, “oh my goodness.” I mean, they launch themselves almost 9 feet in the air, turn over seventeen times and land on their feet. It’s remarkable. And I’ll be looking forward to women’s volleyball, of course, because you know where that coach is going.