Kaler talks free speech, faculty unionization and mental health resources

The University of Minnesota president also talked about the school’s initiatives for low-income students, and his Halloween plans.

University President Eric Kaler answers questions for the Minnesota Daily on Friday, Oct. 21, 2016 in his office at Morrill Hall.

Chelsea Gortmaker

University President Eric Kaler answers questions for the Minnesota Daily on Friday, Oct. 21, 2016 in his office at Morrill Hall.

Kevin Beckman

The Minnesota Daily sat down with University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler Friday for the semester’s second installment of “Kickin’ it With Kaler” to talk about free speech and faculty unionization, among other topics.

After a months-long search, the University has named Brian Burnett as its new senior vice president for finance and operations. Burnett’s position is a new one, created by melding the offices of vice president of finance and vice president for University services. What were the reasons for restructuring these positions?

… In having those four offices — HR, IT, facilities and finance — all report to a single person, will enable … [the] offices to work more effectively together around a lot of the business processes that are the backbone of the operations of the institution. Brian has just the perfect background to do that. He’s essentially doing that job at the University of Missouri system. …

What are your hopes for Burnett as he assumes his role?

I really want us to be as operationally efficient as we can be. For example, when we are designing a new building or renovating a building … there’s a lot of cross talk between facilities and design folks, the finance people who are figuring out how to pay for it, the real estate office if there’s acquisition involved, Office of Information Technology because you’re trying to figure out how to make that building come alive electronically … you’ve got all of those pieces, and right now they’re in different kinds of buckets. Now we’ll have one organization. We can bring the people in those various offices all to the same level and we can work together more effectively and more efficiently. It’s easier being all on one team instead of being part of one of four teams.

The Learning Abroad Center and CIEE are giving away 200 free passports to students, prioritizing students who demonstrate financial need. Aside from this and efforts to keep tuition low, what are some other direct initiatives the University is working on to help low-income students?

… We expanded the Promise Program to benefit students who come from families making $120,000 or less. That’s an increase from $100,000. With that program, those students were protected from the tuition increase that we passed in June. We’ve got a President’s Emerging Scholars program that helps students from low-income families come to the U. There’s a summertime preparation activity, some additional financial aid … these are activities aimed to make the University accessible. …

Some students have expressed frustration towards the number of classes being taught by teaching assistants or graduate students instead of professors, particularly in the economics department. Why do you think this problem might exist?

The situation in economics is that their enrollments have grown pretty dramatically, and their number of tenure and tenure-track faculty has not changed very much at all. So that creates an increased teaching burden that is met by the use of TAs in that department. I know the College of Liberal Arts has surveyed that situation, but I don’t think they’ve released their findings on that subject. …
Does the University have plans to remedy the problem once those findings come out?

Those kind of resource allocations are made at the college level, so that need would compete in the College of Liberal Arts with a variety of other needs for faculty, so it’s the dean’s job to make those decisions.

How do issues reported to the [Bias Response Team] play into discussions of freedom of expression on campus?

That’s a challenging question both on this campus and around the country. We really are in a very good conversation, I think, and sometimes a painful conversation around the balance of freedom of speech, which is absolutely guaranteed by the United States Constitution, with speech that some may find hurtful … we as a community need to have those discussions so that people understand the consequences of the things that they say, that they write and begin to have a more full understanding of what this institution needs to be open to people of all backgrounds and all beliefs.

Speaking of freedom of speech, the first in a series of conversations led by you on campus climate ended abruptly earlier this month when protesters — including MSA President Abeer Syedah — criticized your response to the “Build the Wall” panel. Demonstrators accused the University of protecting hate speech as free speech. How can the University find a balance between the protection of free speech and the protection of people from harmful speech?

The solution to speech that some find harmful is more speech on the other side of that issue. The campus conversation was a step forward. I listened to people who had feelings of hurt that translated in some cases, I think, into anger. We try to continue that dialogue and have people listen in respectful ways to points of view and try to find common ground.

Recently, conversations have risen over whether undocumented students living in Minnesota should be paying resident or nonresident tuition. What is your stance on this?

I think our current policy is that in-state tuition rates and private scholarships are available to eligible students, including undocumented students. I continue to believe that the road to a better life for any individual is paved by education. We will continue to make those in-state rates available for all eligible students.

At their last meeting, some regents expressed concerns over the utility of [Higher Education Asset Preservation and Renovation] for funding capital projects. Regent Laura Brod said the University needs to start looking for new ways to fund some of its projects besides HEAPR, calling it a “one-way partnership that isn’t working.” Why isn’t HEAPR working the way Regents want it to, and what other solutions might there be?

HEAPR is the vehicle in the state bonding program to deliver funds for maintenance of higher education and state buildings. We don’t receive enough money from the state on a recurring [basis]. … There’s an enormous backlog of infrastructure across the state. … The alternatives to that are not very many. … In the last biennium, we made a request to the state to put recurring money into our operating budget for repair and renovation. Politically, that did not get very much traction. … We’re going to be back in that conversation with this legislature. It’s not a formal part of our budget request, but we’re going to see if we can lay the groundwork to advance that operating investment rather than relying on bonding.

Last week, the University announced it would challenge a Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services decision to the Minnesota Court of Appeals to include faculty positions like teaching specialists and lecturers in a union vote. The ruling was part of the University’s long-running legal battle with union organizers, and the school has said that the bureau misread state law. Will the University take further legal action if the appeal fails?

Depending on the outcome of the appeal, we will weigh our options, which may include further legal steps. …

Have you been in contact with leaders from other universities who have unionized faculty? If so, what have you learned from them?

I was at the University of Delaware for 18 years, which has a unionized faculty. And I have talked with leaders of other unionized institutions. It does constrain elements of flexibility, and we would prefer to deal with our faculty as individuals rather than as a group represented by a third party.

Last week, the University’s Board of Regents voted to demolish the 115-year-old electric steel elevators near TCF Bank Stadium. Are you anticipating pushback from the community following the decision?

Yes. In fact, a group called the Friends of the Electric Steel Elevators … I don’t know if they’ve filed a lawsuit, I do know that there was some talk that they would attempt to get a restraining order to prevent us from taking those down. I do expect that will mature in the course of time. Again, the Regents’ decision … I believe is exactly the right thing to do. I believe they’re a hazard, and I don’t want to own a steel elevator that somebody dies in.

Halloween is just around the corner. What are you going to dress up as?

That is a secret. You have to come to my house on Sunday afternoon when we have an open house … and you’ll be able to see. It’s I think quite entertaining, and people will get a chuckle out of it.

Do we get any hints?

Man, I don’t know … the hint is, we’re proud to be parents.