University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler’s announcement on Friday afternoon that he will step down as president in July 2019, a year before his term was scheduled to end, was met with mixed reactions from students and student organizations.
Since becoming president in 2011, Kaler has faced criticism from some University students for his handling of scandals and tuition increases, as well as what they say is a lack of transparency. Others on campus say Kaler saw success in fundraising campaigns during his eight-year tenure.
Reactions to Kaler’s announcement
Martin Branyon, a member of University student group Students for a Democratic Society, said he wasn’t surprised by Kaler’s decision to leave his role a year early because Kaler fielded continued critiques from students, faculty and staff.
SDS is a national organization with a chapter on the University’s campus. The University’s SDS has been a vocal critic of Kaler’s, often organizing protests against Kaler and created the slogan “Fire Kaler” in 2016.
Kaler has been criticized by some on campus for his handling of protests, like a February 2015 protest that resulted in 13 protesters arrested who staged a sit-in in Kaler’s office in Morrill Hall.
Branyon said Kaler failed to assure that white students and students of color received the same opportunities on campus, citing disparities in graduation rates between white students and students of color as an example.
Last year, the University was one of 676 public and private institutions reviewed by the Education Trust, an education advocacy group based in Washington D.C. The group found the University had the 79th highest racial graduation disparity in the country, with a 23.8 percentage gap between the number of white and black students who graduate in six years.
Kaler also faced criticism for his response to a “build the wall” mural painted on the Washington Avenue Bridge by College Republicans during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. Kaler condemned the vandalism of the mural and said the campus supports all types of free speech.
Branyon said he criticized Kaler for his stance on the mural, which Branyon said did not protect students of color and marginalized people on campus.
Citing Kaler’s fundraising successes on the University’s behalf, Blake Andert, a University sophomore, said he believes Kaler has been an above-average leader compared to previous University presidents.
Andert said he praised Kaler’s ability to keep resident tuition low, but is disappointed by increases to nonresident tuition under Kaler’s presidency.
“[Kaler] has done a good job promoting public-private partnerships with industry,” he said.
Kaler’s presidency saw backlash for increasing tuition for resident and nonresident students, which occasionally resulted in protests. The Board of Regents recently approved Kaler’s proposal to increase resident undergraduate tuition for students on the Twin Cities and Morris campuses in the upcoming academic year.
Since taking the position in 2011, Kaler has increased resident tuition at a lower rate than previous presidents. During Kaler’s tenure, resident undergraduate tuition has risen over 11 percent. Under University President Bob Bruininks, resident tuition rose around 48 percent.
Nonresident tuition under Kaler has increased around 12.5 percent during the previous academic year.
University sophomore Austin Berger believes Kaler has been more progressive than other presidents, although he criticized Kaler for not ending tuition hikes.
Berger also cited Kaler’s opposition to the results of the UMN Divest referendum, which passed during last year’s all-campus elections, as a failure of his tenure. The student body passed the referendum by 217 votes, calling for the University to divest involvement with companies involved with Israel.
“He’s done a good job of listening to students’ demands when it fits his own agenda, but when it comes to other ideas I don’t see him being a proponent of those ideas in an inclusive manner,” Berger said.
James Farnsworth, chief of staff for the Minnesota Student Association, said he thanks Kaler for his service.
“He was always responsive to the countless stakeholder groups he was responsible for engaging with as President. From the student government perspective, he always took our ideas seriously and was always willing to engage with our proposals and ideas,” Farnsworth said in a text message.
Student government leaders and campus groups hope the next president will be receptive to student voices at the University.
In a statement on behalf of MSA, student body president Simran Mishra said she would like to see student voices included in the new president search.
“We call for administration to consciously involve all levels of student organizations to ensure a diverse mindset in the selection process,” she said in a text message to the Minnesota Daily. “By involving student governments in the process, student needs can be accurately considered and addressed in years to come.”
Andert said he would like the next president to be more transparent than Kaler. He would also like to see the new president focus on ensuring that tuition is affordable for all students, he said.
In addition to student feedback, Branyon said that he would like to see the search committee listen to what faculty and staff would like in a president.
“We’re really hoping that the University and the people who make these decisions can take the sides of the students and the workers and the community around the University to put somebody in place who will actually make the University a place that serves the people of the state,” Branyon said.