Kaler discusses bonding and diversity

He also talked about a surge in crime and fetal tissue research.

University President Eric Kaler stands in his office in Morrill Hall on Wednesday afternoon.

Joe Sulik

University President Eric Kaler stands in his office in Morrill Hall on Wednesday afternoon.

Youssef Rddad

This week, University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler joined the Minnesota Daily for spring semester’s first installment of Kickin’ It with Kaler.
 
 
Kaler sat down with the Daily on Wednesday to talk about the upcoming legislative session, campus diversity and a recent neighborhood crime spike, along with other topics behind the scenes in Morrill Hall.
 
 
With the spring semester just a few weeks underway, is there anything you’re looking forward to this semester? 
 
This is always an interesting time as we ramp up the legislative session, so I’m spending a lot of time talking to legislators and other thought leaders — advocating for the 
University bonding bill.
 
 
Gov. Mark Dayton recently unveiled his bonding bill for the 2016 legislative session. Dayton’s proposal calls for the University to receive about $150 million of the $236.3 million the University requested. What are your thoughts on Dayton’s proposal?
 
We’re pleased that he’s come out in support of most of the projects that we requested. We understand that it’s not always possible to give everybody in Minnesota everything that we want.
 
 
Is there anything else you’re keeping an eye out for with the upcoming session?
 
We have a supplemental budget request in. … There are important elements there, particularly around cyber security, that we’d like to see funding for. The other three priorities are helping replacing some support that we’ve lost from UCare, mining research and rural health care.
 
 
In President Obama’s State of the Union Address, he called for a “moonshot” initiative to cure cancer. How the might the U play a part in this vision?
 
We should be able to play a very big role. We have the Masonic Cancer Center and a large range of research around cancer. And if the federal government chooses to increase support there, we’d hope to get, and plan to get, a good chunk of that.
 
 
What do you think of the President’s vision? Do you think this is something we can do?
 
It’s a bold vision. As I’ve talked to cancer researchers, the opportunities are there to make great advances. We did get to the moon, and I think a lot of people doubted our ability to do that when President Kennedy offered to it up. I’m optimistic about the return on this. 
 
 
With the one-year anniversary of the Whose Diversity? protests in Morrill Hall, where the group urged the University to become more diverse and inclusive, do you feel like there have been changes on campus in regard to diversity? 
 
We continue to work on campus climate as aggressively as we can, and I’ve listened a lot to the voices, including those from Whose Diversity?. — The RIGS [Race, Indigeneity, Gender and Sexuality Studies Initiative] cluster hire is part of that work. … We’ve worked with CSE to add women faculty members. We’re doing a lot of work with deans and department chairs to diversify search pools. … We created a bias response team, which is an interesting way to provide opportunities for students or any University citizen to report situations where they feel there’s bias. … I think a lot of good work is going on. … I put my name on our “un-Minnesotan” ad in the Star Tribune on Monday with other leaders from around the state. I think it’s a clear statement that we need to welcome people that might be of a different background.
 
 
Last semester you issued a letter to students and staff discussing the political climate in the country toward Muslims in particular. Why do you feel that it’s important to be speaking out against perceived anti-Muslim attitudes? 
 
Well, because it’s just not who the University of Minnesota is. We want to be and need to be a welcoming place of people of all faiths. Right now in the United States, you see and hear a lot of rhetoric around Muslims and anti-Muslim rhetoric … and I think it’s clear to say that it’s not part of our life.
 
 
Has the Muslim community on campus reached out to your or other administration personally?
 
I have, over the course of time, heard of instances where students or others have felt threatened and uncomfortable. That Charlie Hebdo controversy of last semester is an example where a lot of Muslim students came forward and said, ‘This is not OK.’
 
 
How do you feel the University reacted to some of those concerns?
 
I think we will provide a robust response. In the Charlie Hebdo situation, there needed to continue to be dialogue about the intersection of freedom of speech and academic freedom and a welcoming environment.
 
 
Since last month, there has been a wave of armed robberies in the area. What are your thoughts on this?
 
Well, the campus is a safe campus. The robberies have been off-campus. … But it’s probably time for us to again re-emphasize the need for students and others to be aware of their surroundings, make smart choices about their late night activities. … I have great confidence in the police to apprehend these people. 
 
 
Do you know of any extra precautions the University police department is taking? 
 
Again the Gopher Chauffeur program is an important part, and the 624-WALK number provides opportunities. … You can have a lot of infrastructure, but people also have to make smart decisions. 
 
 
Faculty members at the University recently filed to unionize. What are your thoughts on a potential faculty union?  
 
We continue to believe that interacting directly with our faculty members without a third party does provide … a good working environment.
 
 
A number of lawmakers have criticized the University for its use of fetal tissue for research. While researchers and the University defend the practice, why do you think it’s important the school continues this type of research?
 
I think the University needs to have the right to do research that’s legal. … It provides opportunities for the improvement of the human condition. We have researchers who use fetal tissue with the belief that they’ll be able to affect cures and treatments.
 
 
Do you have any fun plans for Valentine’s Day coming up?
 
We’ve been married 37 years, and so my ideas for Valentine’s Day have run out some time ago. I look forward to a quiet evening and a good meal with my wife. That’s my hope. 
 
 
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
 
One is the Corpse Flower at [the] St. Paul Conservatory. It blooms every seven years, and it smells like rotten meat, but it’s an interesting thing to see. I have not yet seen it.