Kaler talks staff, eTexts, Vikings, State of the U

The Minnesota Daily sits down with President Eric Kaler to discuss what’s going on at the University.

Dina Elrashidy


The Minnesota Daily sat down with President Eric Kaler to talk about the retirement of Vice President Kathleen O’Brien, the Carlson School’s dean search and the outlook on the University of Minnesota’s next bonding bill.

What was your reaction to Vice President Kathleen O’Brien announcing her retirement last week?

I was sad to have that conversation with her. She’s been a terrific vice president. She’s done a lot of very important things for the University. I’d love for her to continue, but life has its cycles and it’s time for her to move into the next chapter of her life with her husband. I wish her all the best.

What skill set are you looking for in her replacement?

The nature of that job is really very complex. The ability to manage large capital projects, the scope and span of all of the operations on a campus and a system as large as ours is really enormous. So, somebody with a good management background. Somebody who understands the community and understands the construction and facilities processes is important.

Since the beginning of your presidency, you’ve stressed enhancing business ties. How has that been going so far?

Well, I’m giving a talk at the [TwinWest] Chamber of Commerce at lunch time [Wednesday]. I’m really trying to be aggressively out in the business community and talking to thought leaders there. It’s important, I think for our connection to Minnesota, that we’re active in the business community.

How important is the new Carlson School of Management dean’s skills in enhancing those business ties and in bringing in more revenue for the University?

That’s an important player on that team. Obviously, that person is going to have a really central role in interacting with businesses in terms of providing educational opportunities as well as being a terrific source — of the Carlson School being a terrific source — of talent for the state.

What are you looking for the new dean to bring to the table?

Well, what we look for in all deans obviously is the ability to manage a college and to make those kinds of tough decisions for faculty and staff that help the school get better. And also to be an ambassador for the school outside. In the Carlson School, that latter role is particularly critical. 

Now that you’ve spent some time at the Legislature, what do you think of the outlook for the University’s next bonding bill?

I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll do a little bit better on our HEAPR [Higher Education Asset Preservation and Replacement]  funding than the governor’s number. But it’s too early to tell what the final breakdown will be.

What is the attitude at the Legislature toward the University?

It’s hard to put in a word. I think there [are] generally warm feelings for the University. I think there’s some cautious optimism that the worst of the economic troubles are behind us. And I think there’s a desire to do what’s best for the state.

New Provost Karen Hanson is a proponent of eTexts. There have been some increased initiatives to integrate more online and interactive courses at the University. How far do you see this trend going here?

Oh, I think it’ll go a long way. It’s really important for us to use technology in an aggressive way to enhance student learning. We absolutely need to be leaders.

How much of the interest in eTexts is to save money, and how much of it is in the student’s best interest?

Our focus is providing a great education for students of the University of Minnesota. E-learning is likely to be an important part of that going forward. We are trying to develop the best pedagogy and enhance student learning at the University.

There is a tentative deal with the Vikings that will allow them to play at TCF Bank Stadium in the near future. How much will the University be involved in organizing this?

It is a tentative deal. It’s not finalized, and it needs to be approved by the [Board of Regents]. We’ll be heavily involved in the operations part of that activity. It is the University stadium, and we want to be helpful to the Vikings. Obviously, we’ll work out appropriate compensation for use of the stadium and the time our people spend on it.

What have you been discussing in the negotiations with the Vikings?

It’s a back-and-forth between our folks and their folks. It’s a matter of hammering out the operations fees, the physical improvements to the stadium that will be needed for NFL games, you know, discussion about parking, concessions [and] things like that.

You’ve discussed the Operational Excellence Committee. How is that going? Who’s on it?

It’s a group of senior leaders at the University. We’re really looking at how we operate — a focus on HR issues, a focus on the centers and institutes that we have and their vitality and alignment with our current mission [and] back office processes around grants management. The new [Minnesota Innovation Partnerships] proposal is an example of what we’re doing in the research arena.

How often do you meet, and what kind of structure do you have?

We meet about every week. It’s very structured. We have a list of topics we want to do. We’ve had a series of listening sessions with about a hundred people around campus, and we’ll be moving that to larger groups as we move into the semester. It’s a focused effort to manage our operations more efficiently.

What will be some highlights of your State of the University speech next Thursday?

I’m going to talk about a couple of educational initiatives that I’d like to move forward, talk about a couple of research initiatives that I want to move forward. I’ll talk about our land grant mission and our 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act [establishing land-grant colleges].