Kaler talks child care, Dinkytown changes and his St. Paul vision

The Minnesota Daily sat down with Kaler this week for a monthly interview.

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler fields questions from the Minnesota Daily in his office on Monday, March 1.

Jack Rodgers

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler fields questions from the Minnesota Daily in his office on Monday, March 1.

Kelly Busche

The Minnesota Daily sat down with University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler for this semester’s second monthly interview about University news and events.

Kaler discussed the St. Paul campus vision, the future of University child care and campus security, among other topics.

I was going to chat with you about spring break first, so … you’re staying here?

We were in Arizona a few weeks ago, Karen and I, to kick off the Driven campaign. And then we’ll do that in Florida. … And then my wife’s family is in Nashville, and so she’s going to go spend some time with her sister and mother, and I’ll go down there for a long weekend over St. Patrick’s Day. … Short trips here and there. No grand plans.”

Longtime Dinkytown businesses, like Vescio’s Italian Restaurant and Espresso Royale, have closed in recent months. What do you think of Dinkytown’s changing landscape?

Well, you know … that old saying, right, “The only constant is change?” And so it’s not surprising that real estate in Dinkytown, which I expect has become more valuable, turns over. … It’s a normal part of the dynamic neighborhood. So I’m sorry to see those businesses go, but we welcome [the new] ones that come.

Since the Minnesota Daily last met with you, Ben Shapiro spoke on the St. Paul campus. His speech was met with protests, [and] the University … supported his right to speak. Can you just tell us more about the University’s stance or process when it comes to hosting these controversial figures?

We celebrate and protect the right for free speech. So if a student group invites a speaker, we will do all we can to allow that speaker to speak. But also, we hold — at a very high level — the importance of the safety. … So balancing that First Amendment right to free speech with the ability to have the speaker actually deliver his talk without being interrupted and protect those who may have a different point of view — those two things are really important to us. And I think in the Ben Shapiro case we managed both of those fairly well.

The University is collecting data on how students feel about the St. Paul campus for its plans to revamp the St. Paul campus in upcoming years. You initiated this process last year. What was your motivation for this?

Since I’ve been president, it feels like we haven’t been able, as a community, to develop a crisp mission and identity for the St. Paul campus … [so we] thought it was time to come together with a large, inclusive group and think about what the future of that important part of our campus looks like. 

So what do some of those identities look like?

Well, clearly, agriculture. [The College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences], a very important college to the University, has its home there. And … our veterinary college … [The] College of Biological Sciences, … [The] College of Design, the [College of Education and Human Development], all of these units have part of their operation there. … Should we have a long term goal of consolidating colleges on one campus or another? Those are the kind of questions I want to look at.

In January, the University announced the Child Development Center would close in summer 2019. It has now postponed the closure. Where does the University stand on the CDC now?

Well, the initial decision to close the CDC did create a lot of anxiety and upset in the community, and I’m sorry that it did. We are now embarked on a more deliberative and inclusive discussion about what the future of that center will be, and … what the future of child care in general should be on the Twin Cities campus. That’s a process that’s underway under the guidance of the Provost [Karen Hanson] and Vice President [Mike] Berthelsen.

So what does that process look like?

It’s gathering a group of stakeholders — parents of children of the center, other knowledgeable people about childcare, some people from the human relations and human resources rather, and business side of the University — to really talk carefully about the role of the University itself … in providing child care for our employees and our students.

Looking forward, how is the University going to weigh that decision?

Well, we’ll make a combination of … economic factors, employee-benefit factors, elements that enable our employees to be effective and efficient in their work. But at the same time, we’re open to conversations with the private sector, with nonprofits and with others [about] how we can partner to provide childcare that is of high quality, but also affordable for the University and for families.

The University announced last week that it would support students who are suspended for participation in lawful protest and would not [require students] to report such activities on their application for admission. Why did the University decide to support these students?

A student’s ability to take part in a protest around something that they feel [is] important to them … shouldn’t be counted against them in an admissions decision. It’s really not more complicated than that.

Recent shootings at academic institutions, like Parkland, Florida, have some schools considering safety. Is the University of Minnesota reconsidering any safety measures in light of recent events?

We … currently ban guns from campus. That will continue. Our police force has a variety of active shooter scenarios that they rehearse and are prepared for. Those are elements that we have in place should an active shooter … situation occur on campus. And again, the advice is to shelter in-place if a shooting happens. We do have the ability to control the external doors on buildings remotely, so we can quote-unquote “lockdown campus.” … It is a terrible thing in our society that people are able to access these weapons and inflict really horrible violence in a very short amount of time.