Kaler talks budget, provost, next steps

Greta Kaul

University President Eric Kaler spent part of Friday âÄî the day after he was officially inaugurated as president and his 55th birthday âÄî talking with the Minnesota Daily.

You said you planned to spend the first 100 days in office âÄúlistening.âÄù That period is almost up, so what have you learned?

Well IâÄôve learned a lot about the U. IâÄôve gotten to meet a lot of people. I still havenâÄôt been able to touch base with all the important units.I havenâÄôt been to Duluth yet, I havenâÄôt been to Rochester yet. So IâÄôve learned about things IâÄôve talked about previously âÄî the enthusiasm that people have for the U.

But itâÄôs a big place and people need to come back to a focus on what we do âÄî things I talked about in the [inauguration] speech yesterday: operational efficiencies.

What are your next steps?

WeâÄôve pulled together a team to start to look at how to streamline administrative things that we do and get efficiencies in that process.

When the new [vice president for academic affairs and] provost arrives, he or she will lead the conversation around to focus on academic programs; so those will be the two action items that are coming forward. In some sense, a macroscopic look at everything we do.

But we have people thatâÄôll be able to drill down into the various programs and A: find ways to save money, and B: ensure that weâÄôre doing things academically at the level that we should be.

Will your job be more difficult as your presidential âÄúhoneymoon periodâÄù comes to a close?

Well you know, Karen and I joke about the fact that we got married on Dec. 30, and I had to come back to work the first day of January âÄî so we had a three-year honeymoon in Minnesota before we went to Washington. Clearly things will become more challenging as I begin to sort through the difficult issues and decisions that IâÄôll need to make. I guess the easiest way to put it is IâÄôll make decisions that are hard, and when you do that you donâÄôt make everybody happy all the time. So I expect that will happen, and weâÄôre in a difficult period of time in which those decisions will impact a lot of people. But as we move forward, I hope people will share the view that weâÄôre doing whatâÄôs best for the University overall, and for the future âÄî thatâÄôs the spirit in which IâÄôm going to make decisions and I hope thatâÄôs the spirit people will join with me.

Your greatest challenge as president will be a financial one. What can the University do to cope with a shrinking money pot?

IâÄôve really talked about three things. One is philanthropy, another is internal efficiencies, which will reduce cost, and the third is continued engagement with the state about the need for investment in the University. Those will be the three things we will do to reduce the amount of tuition increase weâÄôll need to ask from students going forward.

How do you leverage a corporate relationship with businesses without affecting the UniversityâÄôs academic mission and freedom?

ThatâÄôs a very bright line. We will not partner with a company if that partnership hampers our ability to publish our research results freely and to take that intellectual inquiry wherever it goes. ThatâÄôs not a relationship we would have. ThereâÄôs a very clear set of guidelines we have in engaging foundations and corporations in funding things that we want to do.

You have emphasized the liberal arts, but also talked about efficiency. That sounds like cutting programs, and the smaller liberal arts departments are often the first to be cut. How do you make that balance?

Again, weâÄôre going to make the balance on being excellent and doing things well. If we have a small liberal arts program thatâÄôs really good, thatâÄôs what we want to be. If we have a science program thatâÄôs not very good, thatâÄôs where weâÄôll make cuts. ItâÄôs not going to be about cutting liberal arts âÄî thatâÄôs not a goal. The goal is to do things that are really good at the University of Minnesota, and those are going to be spread across the University.

YouâÄôve said you want to empower deans and chancellors of satellite campuses. How will their roles change in the next couple of years?

Many of the deans and certainly the chancellors are already active in external relations, active in fundraising and active in telling the story of the U and their programs and colleges externally.

I want them to do more of that and I want them to help reach into the community, both to help inform them what the U is doing and to build momentum and pride for telling our story.

Former President Bob Bruininks studied philosophy and psychology. How will your background in science change your approach to the presidency?

Well, I try to not compare, but I will say that a science background equips me to look at a problem in a certain sort of way. I like to gather data and see what that data tells me. I like to make a hypothesis and see how this process is working, and that will suggest ways to make it better. WeâÄôll test those and see if that works. But IâÄôm also an engineer, and engineers test things and if they can be improved they try to improve them, and if they donâÄôt work they set them aside. So IâÄôm whatever the opposite of dogmatic is in that sense. IâÄôm willing to pilot projects, to try things, to see what works and add them to the larger enterprise.

You said youâÄôd like to have a provost chosen by the next Board of Regents meeting in mid-October. Any comments on that endeavor?

We had four very strong finalists come. Unfortunately, one of the finalists did withdraw because of the public nature of that process, but those four are very good. WeâÄôre still gathering data and feedback from the community. I hope to be able to talk with others in my leadership team next week and bring that process to a conclusion.

These are all pretty big goals. How do you keep yourself grounded?

IâÄôm a pretty grounded person. IâÄôve got a great wife, a great family âÄî IâÄôm a pretty centered person. I try not to get too up or too down. I try to focus on the goals that I have, and the goals I have are very good goals. Moving the University forward is important, so itâÄôs easy to keep focused on that. I do enjoy getting a chance to relax every now and then, you know âÄî watching a baseball game or going for a walk and getting some exercise. IâÄôm a pretty centered guy.

Any big plans for your birthday?

We have some family and friends still in town from the inauguration, so I think weâÄôre going to have a little pizza party this evening.