Kaler talks budget, new staff, tuition

The University president discussed his plans for the upcoming year.

Emma Nelson

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler sat down with the Minnesota Daily last week to discuss his proposed undergraduate tuition increase — the lowest in 12 years — changes to the University athletics program and how he feels looking back on his first year at the University.

In March, you discussed former President Bob Bruininks’ administrative leave packages before the House Education Policy and Finance Committee and said that you regret those decisions and that your approach will be different. How do you plan to restore trust in the University administration, and how long do you think it will take?

I think the Board of Regents ad-hoc committee that’s working on policy changes and ways for the regents to be better informed is the step that needed to be taken. Those policies will, I think, enable a process that’s more transparent and has levels of approval that are appropriate. The separation packages were generous, but they were necessary in some cases to have people move on. And that’s part of the decision process the president has to go through. I’m going to have a different process and they will be less generous under my watch.

Your proposed increase to undergraduate tuition is the lowest in 12 years. How did you decide on such a low increase? Are other sectors of the University going to be compromised because of it?

The two things that are most important to me about the University of Minnesota are excellence and access. We have to have excellent academic programs. But the element of access and affordability is also important, so what we’ve done in this budget is taken very sharp pencils and found ways to provide funding for hiring of additional faculty; we found funding for a modest pay increase to reward people who have been working very hard for the University without an increase for the past three years. But we’ve been able to do that within an envelope of a modest tuition increase — which is still a tuition increase — but we are able to buffer that for our most needy students with additional scholarship dollars. And so that’s the model that I would like to see the University follow going forward.

Another upcoming change is the appointment of Norwood Teague as athletics director. When his appointment was announced, you mentioned his track record in fundraising and facilities development. What do you hope to see him contribute to the University?

I think we need a master plan for facilities in athletics, carefully thought out in terms of the importance of the facility, the cost of the facility, the viability of raising funds, and he’s good at that. And then he’s proved to be effective at engaging the donor community. Because, frankly, most of these facilities are going to be built with private funds, and that means we need to cultivate donors.

On a similar note, renovations to Siebert Field were recently approved by the Board of Regents. What will these renovations do for the University at large?

Again, that’s a completely [privately funded] project and it will bring Siebert up to the level of baseball facilities that our competitors have in the Big Ten and give our team a quality place to play.

Back to the Board of Regents: Tom Devine was recently inaugurated and has a lot of ties to the greek community on campus. What affect do you think this will have on greek relations with the University administration?

The greek community is important to him, but it’s also important to me. I put together a greek task force a couple months ago to look at issues focusing primarily on housing. I think they can be very valuable parts of an undergraduate experience, and so I want them to be models nationally in terms of engagement with the University, engagement with the community and service to their members.

On the same topic, a few of the fraternities that were put on probation or suspended after the string of sexual assaults in September 2010 are hoping to regain their status as University- and Interfraternity Council-sanctioned fraternities. How do you feel about this? Will the University continue to keep an eye on these chapters?

I’m not completely up to speed on what the disciplinary process is or what the process is for bringing back a chapter. But it’s sort of a matter of principle. Chapters are made up of people, and while the people in a particular chapter in a particular year may do things that are pretty reprehensible, the chapter itself isn’t banned forever. If a new group of people wants to bring back that chapter, then I think that’s something we ought to look at.

Looking back on your first year at the University, how do you feel it went?

I think I had a pretty good year. My initial goals were to listen and learn, and I spent a lot of time doing that, enmeshing myself in the University, spending a lot of time with faculty and staff and students and external constituents. I developed a lot of relationships with friends of the University, donors [and] legislators. I think all of that’s gone pretty well.

Are you looking forward to the coming academic year?

Absolutely. I think the first year is always an experience where you’re doing everything for the first time — it’s all new. As I continue to put together my leadership team and we begin to work together to lay out the strategies for the next five-to-ten-year period, that’s equally exciting.

Do you have any fun summer plans?

[My wife and I] are going to take a restful two-week vacation away from telephones and email and recharge and come back full of energy for the fall semester.