Kaler talks J Robinson termination, faculty union push and M Health merger

President Eric Kaler sat down with the Minnesota Daily on his 60th birthday to discuss the new year.

University President Eric Kaler sits down with the Minnesota Daily to field questions on Friday, Sept. 23 in Morrill Hall.

Easton Green

University President Eric Kaler sits down with the Minnesota Daily to field questions on Friday, Sept. 23 in Morrill Hall.

Kevin Beckman

On his 60th birthday, University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler sat down with the Minnesota Daily for the school year’s first Kickin’ It.

Kaler talked about former wrestling coach J Robinson, faculty unionization efforts and the changing topography of Stadium Village.

As the school year kicks off, what do you think has been going well so far for the University?

I think the entering students … are off to a great start. The orientation and Welcome Week activities … provide them with a really wonderful opportunity … to get settled in and get off to a good start. I am disappointed again in the state situation. We do not have a bonding bill. That is harmful to the University. We need those resources for maintenance and construction. Beyond that … the profile of the entering class is again, the highest it’s ever been. The percentage of students of color is the highest it’s ever been, ACT scores, et cetera — so a lot of positive directions.

After nine months of negotiations, a plan to merge the University’s Medical School, University of Minnesota Physicians and Fairview Health was put on hold in June when Fairview’s Board of Directors rejected the University’s final proposal. Regents called the merger their top priority. What will the administration’s strategy be to have a more positive outcome when negotiations start in the future?

We’re in a little bit of a pause … We plan to continue to honor those relationships … but at the same time, it provides a little space for the University of Minnesota Physicians to engage in some strategic planning and consider what alternatives might be available. We are committed to continuing to work with Fairview, and I’m hopeful … we can find a path to reopen negations.

Athletic Director Mark Coyle assumed his new role this past summer, taking over a department that has been marred by controversy in recent years. What are your thoughts on director Coyle’s first months in office?

I think he’s off to a terrific start … He’s had some difficult things to deal with, certainly — the controversy around the wrestling coach required some analysis and some action that I supported. But he’s been out in the community … He’s been making friends and raising funds for Athletes’ Village and at the same time getting to know his coaches and his student-athletes …

This month, head Gopher wrestling coach J Robinson was fired for trying to internally handle the use and sale of Xanax by members of the wrestling team. What concerns did that raise to you about the adherence to University policies by Athletic Department coaches?

We felt he wasn’t forthcoming enough with us and ultimately decided that we needed to separate … That process actually illustrates the fact that there are a lot of eyes and ears in Gopher Athletics … You don’t want to have to prove that a reporting system works in that way … but the fact that it did tells me that we’ve got a helpful structure in place.

What steps are being taken to ensure this sort of thing doesn’t happen on other teams, or in other areas of the Athletics Department?

We’ve got a lot of eyes and ears with trainers and coaches and academic advisers. I think the clear message from this to the coaching staff is that there are pretty dramatic consequences if you aren’t as forthcoming as you should be around areas of student-athlete behavior.

Chain restaurants and luxury apartment complexes have been popping up all over Stadium Village in recent years, displacing many businesses that have been hallmarks of Stadium Village for decades, like Espresso Royale and the Big 10 Restaurant and Bar. How do you think these changes might affect the environment of the Twin Cities’ campus community?

I think it makes the environment a little bit more sterile in the sense that it’s more homogeneous and less individualistic. I had my last meal at the Village Wok a few weeks ago, and I had my first meal there in 1978. Those places have been an important part of our community for a long time. I hope that as the new spaces are developed … that some of those businesses can come back into that newer space and provide the same kind of food and opportunities …

Plans to build a new sports bubble and track and field facility, presented to the Board of Regents in September, involves demolishing the 115-year-old grain elevators that currently stand at the site. There has been pushback from the surrounding communities about the demolition, saying the elevators are historic and should be preserved. What is your response to the plan’s critics?

We’ve spent a good amount of effort trying to identify some adaptive reuse opportunities for those buildings, and we did not find any. We are going to do some mitigation around documenting the facilities in photographs and providing some of the artifacts to the Mill City Museum. But, at the end of the day … they become an attractive nuisance. We have urban explorers that think climbing the fences and going into those buildings is a good past time. I don’t want to own a grain elevator that somebody died in. I think the best thing to be done for several reasons is to take them down.

Last week, the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group released records showing that nearly $515,000 in tuition and state money was used for legal fees to combat the union on the issue of what faculty positions could be included in the vote. Legislators and students alike were angered at the use of their money for legal fees. Were you aware that the legal fees were coming from tuition and state money?

The legal fees are not coming from tuition and state money. The legal fees were paid from an account that contains those monies. It’s a little bit like a checkbook. You write a check and then you reconcile where the funds should come from. Tuition or state money will not be used for those legal fees. They are paid from other sources of revenue for the institution.

When you say they come from the same account, how … do you know for a fact that it is not coming from either state money or tuition money if it’s all in one account?

You reconcile each item in the account as you review to close the books and then you assign money from an appropriate source to pay the appropriate bill.

What guarantees do students and taxpayers have that no taxpayer or student money will be used for legal fees in the future?

Our financials are audited. And we’re just not going to do it. You can check the audited books and see if that’s true.

In September, you presented the Board of Regents with this year’s capital requests to the legislature, which totals around $245,000,000. The state almost never fulfills the University’s full request, and there was disappointment over the lack of a bonding bill this year. Legislators have said the University asks for too much and that its priorities shift. What steps will the University take in its efforts to get funding from the legislature for these projects and convey the message that the projects are necessary?

There are really two elements wrapped up in your question. One is the bonding bill where we list projects and try to get bonding money to do that … We ask all the time as our highest priority HEAPR funds … Occasionally, some project will be able to jump the queue for one reason or another … On the operating side … the three elements in this year’s ask are … to support student success, to develop a MNDrive 2.0 around research and innovation and … to ask for help in dealing with the inflationary pressures … If we have that request fully funded, our intent is to not have to ask for a tuition increase for Minnesota residents, at least at the undergraduate level and hopefully at the graduate level. The request is fulsome for sure, but historically, the percentage increase is not out of line with the percentage increase that the University has seen in years in which we have budget increases …

Is the Athletes’ Village project still projected to be completed on time and on budget?

I think we’re at about $94 million … towards $166 million project. My last briefing is that we are exactly on time in the construction cycle. I’m optimistic that we’ll reach the completion date … which I think is November 17.

Today is your birthday. What are you planning on doing to celebrate?

I had a very nice lunch with some folks from my office and my family is going to take me out for dinner, so I’m looking forward to it.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.