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Kaler talks light-rail safety, NFL games

The University president also discussed his goals for the institution and how the new campus tobacco ban is enforced.
University President Eric Kaler voices his position on the lightrail, the smoking ban, and other campus issues during an interview in his office on Thursday.
Image by Lisa Persson
University President Eric Kaler voices his position on the lightrail, the smoking ban, and other campus issues during an interview in his office on Thursday.

About a week after University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler agreed to a contract extension and a salary boost, he chatted with the Minnesota Daily for its summer edition of Kickin’ it with Kaler.

The president, who recently completed his third year in office, discussed plans for his next term, how the school will spend administrative savings and his summer travels.

The Board of Regents recently renewed your contract, which raises your pay and extends your time at the University to 2020.

At the board meeting, you said you plan to stay here until you retire. With at least five more years at the University, what are some of the main goals you have for the future of the institution?

…I think continuing to improve our relationship with the state, and hopefully grow our state allocation, is important. We have a new strategic plan that will emerge in the fall … and engaging in that and making those strategies into reality will be important for me to do.

Again, the whole element of excellence and access that I’ve been talking about since I got here will continue to be important. So, driving excellence in our academic programs and ensuring access to those programs for qualified students will be very

And then last fall, you announced a plan to cut administrative spending by $90 million over the next five years. Does the University have a plan for where the millions of dollars in savings will be allocated?

The answer is “yes,” but the allocations are very decentralized and within the units. … Our goal isn’t to sweep those savings away from [the units], but to enable them to use [the extra money] to do good things programmatically.

So, for example, those savings will enable the College of Veterinary Medicine to freeze its tuition for the coming year. There are a lot of savings in Information Technology that have been able to be redeployed to academic programs using that kind of technology.

So there are lots and lots of examples, but they’re localized and very granular.

The Green Line light rail opened late last month after years of construction. How do you think the light rail has affected campus so far?

I think it’s been positive so far. People are riding it. I have heard no complaints about it.

I know there’s still substantial work to be done to get the light signals at the … crossings to be synchronized. There have been some substantial traffic delays. But, of course, there aren’t very many students around campus this time of year, so I think we’re all concerned about what happens when 50,000 people show up in September who haven’t yet dealt with that train. So we’re worried about safety.

We’re going to try to communicate very aggressively around safety and remind people that the train weighs [about] 98 tons and they don’t. So getting that safety message out is going to be very important.

After years of debate, the University officially banned smoking and tobacco use on campus this month. Has the University been successful in enforcing the ban?

There’s not an enforcement per se associated with the ban. The police aren’t out giving smoking tickets. It is meant to be a community effort to have fresh air on campus. There are programs in Boynton [Health Service] around smoking cessation, and our goal is to help people create a smoke-free campus.

I certainly have not seen smokers around as I move about campus. I’m sure there are, and I’m sure as the community adjusts to the fact that there’s not smoking on campus, that that will go away. But again, it’s not a big stick we’re chasing people down with.

As a follow-up to that, are there any plans to implement stricter policy enforcement when the fall semester begins?

“No” is the short answer. This was set … after years of debate, and so we had a very robust conversation with lots of people around campus over a long period of time, and the consensus … is that this is what people want to have. So, again, those kind of things generally are self-enforcing and self-reinforcing.

The Minnesota Vikings will begin playing at TCF Bank Stadium next month. How is the University preparing for the games?

That is a multi-pronged issue. Clearly, access and egress from the stadium is a point of concern. To go back to the light rail issue, how that light rail plays in traffic patterns and how many fans use it to get to the game are really open questions. So, we’re doing some planning and coordination with the city and the county about getting people into and out of the stadium.

The renovations to the stadium … [are] on track, so we’ll be ready for them. There’s certainly a concern around the neighborhoods with respect to security and fan behavior, and so we’ll again work with our partners to be sure that we have a safe and productive experience for the fans.

Do you know if that will include increased police for safety or anything like that?

I anticipate that there will be more security than we have for Gopher[s] games — both on- and off-duty police officers.

Are there any concerns for the safety of students?

Not above what a student experience would have been at the [Metrodome]. We certainly want the community to be safe overall, including our students, and I wouldn’t expect any … bad things to happen just being near the game on campus.

You mentioned plans to travel to Norway in the last Kickin’ it interview of the spring semester. Have you been there yet this summer?

No, we’re going later in August — looking forward to it. There are some great academic partnerships that I’m interested in reviewing and renewing. Norway’s been an important part of [the University’s] history, of course, and will be an important part of our future.

And what sorts of academic issues are you exploring?

Well, we have student exchanges. We have some faculty exchanges. We have some joint research programs going on. So, pretty much the full range of activity.

And what else have you been up to this summer?

I had an extended Fourth of July weekend back on Long Island visiting some old friends, which was very restful. Beyond that, business travel and a chance to catch up, like everybody else does in the summertime.

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