Kaler on potential employee strike: ‘I’m eager to get to a conclusion and sign a contract’

University President Eric Kaler met with the Minnesota Daily on Thursday to talk first-generation college students, Mukasa’s possible departure and a potential strike.

University President Eric Kaler fields questions during an interview with the Minnesota Daily on Thursday, Nov. 16.

Easton Green

University President Eric Kaler fields questions during an interview with the Minnesota Daily on Thursday, Nov. 16.

Allison Cramer

The Minnesota Daily sat down with University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler on Thursday for this month’s interview about campus news. 

Kaler discussed first-generation college students, a college dean’s possible departure and the potential employee strike. 

The University celebrated First Generation College Student Day [on Nov. 8]. You were the first in your family to attend college, as are 26 percent of current [Twin Cities campus] University undergrads. What is the University doing to support first-generation college students?

Well, we do a lot, you know. It’s, I think, true that first-generation college students typically come from families with lower incomes, and we provide scholarship support for lower income students at a … very good rate. For a family, for example, with an expected family contribution from the [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] of zero — that translates to about a $30,000 or less annual income — between the Pell Grant and the state grant and the Promise Scholarship, we provide financial aid gifts, not loans, that slightly exceed the cost of tuition. So for those families, in fact, tuition at the University is free. I think that’s a powerful message.

This year, the University enrolled its largest freshman class in decades, overshooting its target numbers. Some professors have cited concerns about crowded classrooms and labs. Does the University have any plans to address these issues, and if so, what are they?

Clearly, overshooting your target is not an unalloyed joy. There are consequences to doing that, and that’s one. We would expect over time as students begin to choose majors and move into those majors, that that overcrowding will go away. In other words, they’re not all going to be taking the same classes. But next year we certainly will need to be conservative in our target numbers so that we don’t have two over-capacity [freshman] classes in a row.

Sam Mukasa, the dean of the College of Science & Engineering who was hired at the beginning of last year, recently interviewed for the position of provost at the University of Connecticut. If he gets the job, how would the University go about finding and hiring a new CSE dean?

We appreciate Dean Mukasa’s leadership and service, and it’s common in higher education for people to consider higher jobs, to be upwardly mobile. … Those kind of things happen frequently. … If Sam were to leave us, we would do what we usually do, which is appoint an interim dean during that period of time. We would do a careful and thorough national search to bring the best candidate to campus and ultimately to be the next CSE dean.

What candidate qualifications or traits would you prioritize?

I always prioritize … two things. One is experience, so you want to have people who have had leadership experience in a similar kind of institution. That’s great. And the other one is academic chops, academic credentials and accomplishments that will be inspirational to the faculty in the college. So this is not, quote, ‘just an administrator,’ but someone whose scholarship is at the front ranks.

If he doesn’t get the position in Connecticut, will you still have confidence in his ability to lead the college?

If he doesn’t get the position, I think probably we’ll need him to consider what the right role and balance of responsibilities are here.

Many union-represented University employees have recently threatened to strike over wages and working conditions. Is the University working toward an agreement with these employees and how so?

We don’t do labor negotiations in the newspaper, of course. So I’m not going to be able to give you any specifics. But the negotiating teams are meeting, and I have a lot of respect for those union members. … I’m eager to get to a conclusion and sign a contract.

University Director of Employee Relations Patti Dion said the University will remain open if a strike were to occur. How would the University maintain services like dorm cafeterias if [its] staff were to strike?

Well I don’t know the details of our strike contingency plan, but we would do all we could to provide those services to students during that period of time, if it were … to occur.

Three weeks ago, University police broke up a protest outside right-wing personality Lauren Southern’s speaking engagement on campus. Some critics said you should not have allowed the use of student service fees to pay for a speaker who some call a white nationalist.  How do you respond to these criticisms?

The people who invited Ms. Southern to the University were members of a registered student organization. Registered student organizations are eligible to receive student service fees, and I don’t think anybody wants to go down a road where we decide whether or not an organization gets student service fees based on its political orientation.

You recently appointed Jakub Tolar as the new dean of the medical school. What are you hoping he will bring to the position?

Jakub is really a remarkable person. … You know, it was clear to me he was going to be a very skilled academic leader of a medical school somewhere. And so, when the opportunity came for him to do that here, it was an easy choice to offer him that position. … He brings those leadership skills that I mentioned earlier in response to your Mukasa question. He also brings scholarship. He’s a very active researcher and a terrific clinician. He was the senior academic leader next to Brooks in the school … I think he’s going to elevate everybody’s game. … The school will move forward under his guidance.

Thanksgiving is coming up … What are your plans?

We will have our younger son and his wife in town, so we’ll have a family gathering and eat way too much food and dessert and just have a quiet family time together. I’m looking forward to it. It’s my granddaughter’s first Thanksgiving.

Editor’s note: This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.