UMN President Eric Kaler talks tuition increase, Donald Trump’s budget

The Minnesota Daily sat down with University President Eric Kaler on Friday.

President Eric Kaler fields questions from the Minnesota Daily in his office in Morrill Hall on Friday, April 28, 2017.

Image by Chris Dang

President Eric Kaler fields questions from the Minnesota Daily in his office in Morrill Hall on Friday, April 28, 2017.

by Ryan Faircloth

The Minnesota Daily sat down with University President Eric Kaler on Friday for the semester’s final edition of “Kickin’ it with Kaler.”

Kaler discussed the consequences of diminished state funding, President Donald Trump’s proposed budget and funding for the Aurora Center.

Do you have any fun summer plans?

We are going to go to Maine and southern Canada, a little bit of a driving tour. My father’s family is from southern Maine, and there’s actually a little Kaler corner’s road and there’s a graveyard where a lot of my ancestors are buried. And I’ve never been there, so my wife and I are going to go, going to meet some friends and just kind of chill out.

The University asked the Legislature for a $147.2 million increase to its biennial budget this year. Current proposals from the House and Senate would only fund up to 20 percent of that, or $29.6 million. You said in a statement last week that the proposed allocations would necessitate program cutbacks. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Well, it’s too early to talk about specifics. We haven’t gotten that far down the road yet. The proposed allocations at the House and Senate level really are woefully inadequate for what the University needs in order to continue to deliver on the mission we’re delivering today, which is extraordinarily high-quality research and education and a terrific outreach to the state. So if we don’t get the funding that we need to continue at that level, we’re going to have to cut back…

You’ve also said students could see tuition hikes this fall due to the lack of state support, with resident tuition increasing up to 5 percent and nonresident tuition up to 10 percent. Just last month, you had said that resident tuition was likely to increase around 2 percent. Why the jump?

Because the House and Senate numbers are as low as they are. We had hoped to see some upward movement, and we haven’t seen that. As we run the numbers, we’re in the 5 percent neighborhood, and that is a very difficult decision to make. It’s not one that we take lightly, and it’s not one that we enjoy.

Some Regents have suggested tuition could be frozen for several million dollars in internal reallocations. Would you support that idea, and will your administration propose to freeze tuition based on that suggestion of internal reallocations?

We do [a] considerable amount of internal reallocations already. I don’t think it’s possible to have enough internal reallocation without damaging the delivery of our mission to freeze tuition.

The student service fee model [is] included in the House omnibus bill and now the joint omnibus bill as of yesterday. If the University declined to implement that optional fee model, the bill would penalize the University by withholding state funding dollars. Do you see this as a violation of the U’s autonomy?

I think it’s an interesting question about whether this violates the autonomy or not. We are autonomous to act, but we also depend upon the state for funding. So, this is an area where we’ll have to look carefully again depending on what the final language in the bill, if it becomes law, looks like.

Last month, the Board of Regents announced it would conduct an internal review of the University’s handling of the Gophers football sexual assault case. What do you expect to come of this investigation?

Well first off, I support the investigation, and I think it’s appropriate to do. We had planned to look [on] our own, from an administrative point of view, at what we could learn from that action. I support it, and I think we’ll see some valuable lessons of things that were done correctly and opportunities to do things better in the future.

Do you think you and your administration handled the case well?

I think, by and large, we did the right thing. I think we made the right decisions. I think there’s always questions about how well we communicated and what we were allowed to communicate and when that happened…

Student leaders recently voiced concern over a lack of mental health services at the University’s coordinate campuses, which don’t have access to the same amount of resources as the Twin Cities- campus students. Are there any plans to allocate more budget resources to coordinate-campus mental health services?

I asked in response to that for the chancellors to include appropriate mental health funding in their budgetary requests … And those are again in process as we land on the final University budget. I don’t know off the top of my head what those allocations will be, but we intend to be responsive to the needs of our students.

Amid a significant increase in sexual assault cases at the University, student leaders across campus have been organizing to raise money for the Aurora Center, which they say is currently underfunded. Are there any plans by the University to allocate more money to the Aurora Center in the future?

Right now, because of the flexibility in the Aurora Center budget, they are not in a deficit, and they don’t project a deficit going forward.

Do you agree with the position that the Aurora Center is underfunded?

We respond to needs that the Aurora Center and all of our student-health and well-being programs count on. Every one of those units could probably use additional resources, but we plan to be fair and equitable as we allocate.

President Donald Trump’s budget would likely lead to less federal research funding at the University. Do you know what sort of an impact that would have on University research?

It has the potential to be devastating. The proposed reductions in NIH funding alone would take tens of millions of dollars away from the University … I don’t think that the recommended cuts or suggested cuts will be implemented. But if they were, it would be a terrible outcome, not only for the University and the state, but for the United States.

Why is that research important here at the University?

Research is the seed corn of the future. We are competing with countries around the world for talent and for economic activity. An investment in research is, in my opinion, one of the very best decisions a country can make to ensure its future.

A recent report from U.S. News and World Report revealed that the University’s medical school ranking slid from 35th to 44th this year. What is the University currently doing to reverse the medical school’s downward trend?

We are certainly concerned about that trend …But we are in conversations with our partner, Fairview Health Services, around how we deliver our clinical care, and we have request for support of the medical school as a part of our state appropriation. So part of the solution is bringing more resources to help the medical school, and we’re working hard on that on a couple of fronts.

With the school year winding down, is there anything you’re especially proud of that the University did this year?

Well I think we’re proud of [a] variety of things. In the student success area, I’m proud that again, our four-year graduation rates are improving … In the research space, again [the University had] a record number of startup companies last year, 17 startup companies. [We also had] very strong research funding — the eight-largest public research university in the country.

And our service and outreach, I think we continue to be a strong partner with agriculture in greater Minnesota, providing social and educational services around the state. So all in all, I think we’ve had strong performances in all three areas of our mission…

Looking forward, are there any unfinished goals you’d like to meet by this time next year?

The conversation with our state leaders about the need to invest in the University, both in terms of our operations and next year should be a bonding year. We desperately need a bonding bill this year. I hope we still get one out of the Legislature …

Is there anything you feel like you could’ve done better, or anything you’re not particularly proud of this year?

I think everybody has opportunities to do better. I wish we were having a better outcome in the legislative session. I wish that our student mental health programs were such that our students were feeling less stress and more comfort; there’s always room to do things better.

What are the long-term consequences if we see the Legislature … continue to underfund the University’s requests?

I think you really only have two possible outcomes. One is your quality goes down, or the amount of stuff you do goes down. Those are kind of the only options that you have. And I have no interest in watching the quality of the institution go down, so I think that ultimately means we have fewer programs, we have a smaller impact across the state. And I think that’s a bad direction for us to go …

Editor’s Note: This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.