Kaler talks capital request, development

He also discussed gender-neutral housing and his visit to Washington, D.C.

University President Eric Kaler discusses upcoming changes at the University and reviews recent happenings in his Morrill Hall office Friday.

Lisa Persson

University President Eric Kaler discusses upcoming changes at the University and reviews recent happenings in his Morrill Hall office Friday.

Meghan Holden

The Minnesota Daily sat down with University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler on Friday afternoon for its monthly Kickin’ it with Kaler interview.

In this semester’s first meeting, Kaler discussed his visit to the White House, Gov. Mark Dayton’s bonding recommendation, gender-neutral housing and other topics.


How do you feel about Gov. Mark Dayton’s funding recommendation for construction projects around the University, which is $114 million less than the University’s 2014 capital request?

I think it’s a good starting place. I’m a “glass half-full” kind of guy, so we’ll move forward from the governor’s request.

I think the biggest element of concern for us is he’s proposed a $40 million mark for our [Higher Education Asset Preservation and Replacement] request, and that really is critically important money for us.

We have a lot of deferred maintenance. We have a lot of need to improve our buildings in the way that HEAPR provides — that is, by preserving the assets. So that’s really a concern, and I’m eager to engage our legislative colleagues with conversation about how important HEAPR is to us.

And, of course, we’ll also advocate for the chemistry and materials building on the Duluth campus, which is important to them in terms of providing [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] education for students who are demanding it there …

And also … the microbiology building on the St. Paul campus. So, as I said, it’s a good start, and we’ll continue the conversation as we move through the legislative process.

How do you anticipate the relationship between the University and state Legislature playing out this session?

I think we had a very positive relationship last year. We had the first increase in [the University’s] operating budget in six years, so we were excited to get that done. It enabled us to freeze tuition and invest in the MnDRIVE initiative.

And so as I move into conversations this year with legislators, they’re broadly supportive of the University. Of course, the challenge will be that there [are] lots of calls on bonding money and a lot of good ideas, so we just have to be persuasive, and we have to tell the story really about what goes on in those buildings.

It’s not so much about the buildings as what happens to the students and faculty and staff that are in them and the good outcomes that are generated. I’m looking forward to a good session.

You presented a plan to improve first-year retention rates of low-income University students to President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama last week. How was your experience at the White House?

It was very exciting. It was a conference of about probably 80 to 100 university leaders and other people engaged in higher education. It was a great opportunity to hear the president and the first lady speak in person, which is an opportunity I hadn’t had before.

Our plan is included along with those from other institutions, and we’ll work through that and I think ultimately benefit some of our first-generation and low-income students at the University.

I think the ability to retain them and keep them on the educational pathway will be a positive for them and the institution.

How long has the University been working on this new initiative?

The initiative that I presented, the Retaining all Our Students initiative … is new, so we generated that in the past several months. The President’s Emerging Scholars Program we also rolled out in the fall to provide enhanced access and opportunities for success.

University Extension eliminated about 44 percent of its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program employees this month. How will the University be affected by this significant cut?

That was a consequence of the reduction of federal SNAP funding, which I think is very unfortunate. But as a flow-through program, while we supported the program for a period of time with the University extension funds, it’s not viable for us to do that in the long term, so unfortunately, we had to separate from those employees.

The Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission recently voted to deny Doran Companies the rights to demolish buildings in Dinkytown. How do you feel about development in the neighborhood? How do these decisions affect the University?

Dinkytown and Prospect Park and other nearby neighborhoods — what happens there is obviously critical to the University, whether it’s providing affordable housing, accessible housing, whether it’s the safety issues that our students encounter there. So, we’re in the process of developing a more comprehensive plan about how we should interact with the city of Minneapolis in the development and improvements around our campus. In incoming weeks and months, I think you’ll see us articulate a clearer vision about what we’d like to see happening.

We’ll have a conversation with the city, and again, this is very early in considering how to best move that forward. But it is important to us what happens next door, and we need to be in that conversation.

Beginning fall 2015, the University will allow some students to share rooms in on-campus housing regardless of their gender. How will this affect the University’s residential life?

First off, I think we’re looking at fairly small numbers of students that would take part in that program, so it’s not going to be a big perturbation to residents’ life, but I think it’s important.

I think as students come and want to be in that gender-neutral environment, for whatever reason, we should be able to provide that, and I think that will improve their quality of life and, consequently, their experience at the U.

Was that an easy decision to make, to have gender-neutral housing?

For me, it certainly is. I think there’s some conversation at the University of Minnesota-Morris about this as well, and I think we should be responsive to things our students ask for that we can accommodate.

How do you feel about the success of the Hockey City Classic at TCF Bank Stadium this month?

I was very excited about that. … I was unfortunately not able to attend, but all reports were that it was very successful. A lot of happy Gopher fans, of course, with the victory and also a terrific opportunity for us to expand the use of TCF Stadium. So all in all, I’m very pleased with how that turned out.