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Kaler talks UMN Divest and proposed sexual assault reporting bills

The Minnesota Daily met with University President Eric Kaler last week for a regular monthly interview.
University President Eric Kaler fields questions during an interview with the Minnesota Daily on Thursday, Nov. 16.
Image by Easton Green
University President Eric Kaler fields questions during an interview with the Minnesota Daily on Thursday, Nov. 16.

The Minnesota Daily met with University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler last week for a regular monthly interview about University news.

Kaler discussed the recent UMN Divest referendum, the outlook of the University’s supplemental legislative request and changes in leadership of the men’s hockey team.

We just received a headache amount of snow, so I’m trying to spin this positively forward. What’s your favorite winter activity?

I’m a pretty terrible Minnesotan when it comes to the wintertime … We do get outside and play with the dogs and horse around a little bit. But I have never successfully mastered skiing. And I was supposed to be taught by a postdoc I had who was from Austria. And it snowed — this was back in New York — and we go rent skis … and of course I fall down, and I fall down, and I fall down some more … After about 15 minutes he said, “You do understand the purpose is to remain upright?” Which was followed by some choice words on my part, and that was the end of my skiing career.

Bob Motzko was just appointed to serve as the head coach of the University’s men’s hockey team following the resignation of Don Lucia on March 20, who served as head coach for 19 years. Motzko is familiar with the program, as he served as Lucia’s assistant coach from 2001-2005, and more recently spent time at St. Cloud State as their head coach. How do you think the change in leadership will impact the team?

We’re really excited for Coach Motzko … It was really important to … athletic[s] director [Mark] Coyle that we got the right person … with the right values, the right academic mindset and of course, a terrific set of skills around coaching hockey, which is his job. And we found that in Bob … How things are going to change? I’m not enough of a hockey expert to tell you what will change on the ice, but I do know he’s going to be able to leverage the resources here at the Big Ten level. He’ll do great in recruiting, and I expect we’re going to have a perennially strong team for a lot of years to come.

Early last month, the Board of Regents approved a request of a supplemental $10 million from the Minnesota State Legislature to keep tuition flat. How do you feel about the request’s outlook?

The request itself is exactly what we need. It’s been received favorably by the governor and by the Legislature so far. The governor did, however, include the $10 million as a one-time budget supplement, rather than a recurring element build into our base. That makes it hard to use against recurring costs, such as salary increase or utility bills because you only have that money once. You have to go back and get it again in the next biennium. The request in the bills introduced in the Legislature are … recurring … which is better for us … So I think the key will be what the target number for the higher education budget is … and when that target comes out, we’ll be able to assess how viable our request is, but we’re working hard to tell the story…

Regent Patricia Simmons announced her intent to resign early last month after more than 15 years of service. Some have said this leaves an expertise gap, especially in terms of medical knowledge on the Board of Regents. Do you anticipate that her resignation will impact the board?

Her resignation will absolutely impact the board. She was the longest-serving regent. She had been a former chair. She was the chair of the committee that selected me as president. She had been incredibly important to the board and to the institution for a long time. So she will be deeply missed. Her medical expertise will also be … missed. And I hope the Legislature will take that into account as they choose her successor.

Two bills introduced to the Minnesota State’s higher education committees in the House last month would amend how the University approaches sexual assault. One bill also calls for the Board of Regents to report data on sexual harassment and assault cases directly to the Legislature. Both were introduced in response to past athletic scandals. Do you think bills like this are necessary?

We’re always happy to share data with the Legislature … The bill, if I recall correctly, addresses the University of Minnesota only in terms of making that request. And that’s a missed opportunity because we are by no means alone in issues related to sexual misconduct on campus. It’s a national problem, and certainly is a problem on other campuses in Minnesota that aren’t part of the University. So if the Legislature wants to see data, I would think they want to see data statewide from higher education institutions.

The student body passed the UMN Divest referendum by 217 votes. The referendum, which calls for the University to divest from companies involved with Israel, will now head to the Board of Regents. What are you thoughts about the referendum?

As I’ve said very clearly in several forums, I’m opposed to the content of the resolution. It’s supported by groups that have connections to the [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] movement, which calls for the state of Israel not to exist. I feel strongly that is not what the University should be supporting. I worry about the resolution harshening the climate on campus — making it more difficult to have discourse between groups around issues related to the Middle East … At the end of the day, we need to have a place where people have opportunities for dialogue in a welcoming environment that encourages critical thought and discussion. And to me, a referendum like this is not a step in the right direction.

Amid critiques of [the combined] vice president of health sciences position and dean of medical school position, the University’s Academic Health Center Faculty Consultative Committee has recommended to split the position. You said you were reviewing the recommendation last month. Are you planning on releasing a recommendation?

We are working on that, so that’s absolutely a work in progress. We’ve been a little busy with other elements related to our conversations with clinical partners in the medical school. So those need to move forward. The internal discussion about alignment overall of the AHC — the components that are in it, how they relate to the clinical cares provisions of the academic health center colleges — all of that is open for discussion. And it’s being openly discussed right now … The groups don’t have final recommendations to make to me … So I’m not ready to make a decision on that right now.

Do you know when you’ll be ready to make a recommendation?

I haven’t given a firm timeline because I do want to allow time for these other clinical conversations to come to fruition and be sure that we’re thoughtful and careful about when that decision is made and what the future alignment will be.

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