Legislators weigh in on presidential expectations

State lawmakers are looking to collaborate with the incoming president.

by James Nord

In a climate of budget cuts and fiscal uncertainty, the next University of Minnesota president needs to collaborate with the Legislature and clearly articulate the UniversityâÄôs goals to succeed, lawmakers said.

Minnesota Office of Higher Education Director David Metzen, a former regent, said the ideal presidential candidate would be a “courageous leader” who can operate with limited resources. The Board of Regents hopes that leader is Eric Kaler, the lone finalist to replace President Bob Bruininks next summer.

A projected $5.8 billion state budget deficit and declining higher education funding wonâÄôt smooth KalerâÄôs transition.

The University will likely experience a decrease in state funding for the next budget cycle because of the deficit, despite requesting $1.3 billion from the Legislature âÄî $100 million more than current levels. The Legislature cut $36 million in aid this year alone.

“Job No. 1” for the president will be working with state lawmakers, Kaler said.

The key is to do so without burning any bridges, Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, a candidate for chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, said.

Bruininks worked cordially with lawmakers on higher education legislation while also fighting for the UniversityâÄôs place at the table, Nornes said.

“I was hoping they could clone Bruininks, but I donâÄôt think thatâÄôs possible,” he said, emphasizing the importance of respect for the legislative process.

During his tenure at Stony Brook University, Kaler said he was heavily involved in the New York State Legislature.

Kaler would take over too late to be active this legislative session in Minnesota, but he would be involved in 2012, a bonding year. Bruininks will step down in June, giving the next president transition time.

“Legislative relationships are a very important part of the presidentâÄôs responsibilities,” University spokesman Dan Wolter wrote in an e-mail. “ItâÄôs safe to say the president-designate will be spending time familiarizing him or herself with the BoardâÄôs legislative agenda and building those working relationships.”

State legislators involved in higher education named a number of areas they would like to focus on with the incoming president.

Sen. Sandy Pappas, the outgoing Higher Education Committee chairwoman, said she hopes Kaler will work to expand access and diversity at the University. She appreciates KalerâÄôs scientific background and the implication it has for the UniversityâÄôs research goals.

“Superficially âĦ this looks like heâÄôs a very skilled academic in a field thatâÄôs going to be important in the coming economy,” Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, said.

Differences in opinion are likely to arise. ItâÄôs important to reduce the financial burden on students, said Sen. Claire Robling, R-Jordan, a likely candidate to chair the Higher Education Committee. She was unsupportive of KalerâÄôs advocacy for tuition increases to solve the State University of New YorkâÄôs budget troubles.

“Well, we could have a little disagreement,” Robling said. “ThatâÄôs not something I would be looking toward.”

She stressed exploring innovative methods to operate the University more efficiently. It also needs to focus on monetizing research, Robling said.

“Otherwise itâÄôs not worth our investment.”

Kaler, in turn, advocates for state support.

“The state has, in my opinion, very few better places to invest its money than in educating its citizens, so I think they need to be a very important partner in public higher education,” he said.

Most higher education lawmakers said theyâÄôll remain hands-off for the final leg of the process because the regents are autonomous from the Legislature.

“ItâÄôs clearly a done deal unless something blows up, which is highly unlikely,” Kahn said.

Lawmakers werenâÄôt extensively consulted and most conceded the necessity of an anonymous search.

Many candidates donâÄôt want to risk their reputation or current job by being named in the process.

“IâÄôm a former journalist, but I donâÄôt have a big problem with it,” said Robling, a member of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system chancellor search committee. “The ones you donâÄôt hear about will all be discarded anyway.”

The MnSCU search process is different because the state ultimately appoints a chancellor. The UniversityâÄôs Board of Regents controls presidential appointees.

“I hope this guy is a super president,” Kahn said. “I hope he meets everybodyâÄôs expectations. I hope heâÄôs a whiz at fundraising. I hope heâÄôs a marvel at dealing with the Legislature, with the regents, with all the factions heâÄôs going to have to deal with.”

 

-Conor Shine contributed to this report.