President Kaler discusses campus free speech, demolition of historic grain elevators

The Minnesota Daily sat down with the University of Minnesota's president for its last 'Kickin' It With Kaler'.

University president Eric Kaler answers questions for the Minnesota Daily in his office on Monday morning.

Maddy Fox

University president Eric Kaler answers questions for the Minnesota Daily in his office on Monday morning.

Kevin Beckman

For the last time this semester, University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler sat down with the Minnesota Daily Monday afternoon.

Kaler talked about Thanksgiving food, a University decision to demolish historic grain elevators on campus and the impact of a Republican-controlled Minnesota Legislature on the University.

Thanksgiving was this past weekend, what do you do for Thanksgiving?

We had some family over … [W]e had a son and daughter-in-law and her parents, and actually we ate dinner at their house … Karen cooked a turkey, we watched a little football and took a nap. Pretty standard American Thanksgiving day.

How was the turkey?

It was good —­ it was fried. Have you ever had deep fried turkey? It’s pretty tasty.

This year’s presidential election was particularly polarizing and stirred up numerous debates about campus climate and freedom of speech on our campus. What are your concerns about freedom of speech here on our campus after the election?

Well, the University doesn’t exist on an island, so we are pushed and pulled by all kinds of currents in our society. But our critically important commitment is to freedom of speech … At the same time, we condemn hateful speech … And that’s a balance that sometimes people disagree about where the line is … At the same time, we’re committed to a climate of safety and inclusion.

How can this administration draw a line if there is a line to be drawn? Where does that line stand?

Well I think it’s a difference sometimes in the eye of the beholder. It’s not my job to define free speech or hate speech. Nor is my job to censor what people want to say. The best cure for speech that somebody thinks is hateful is more speech…

Legislators and some other outside groups have criticized the U for exercising its autonomy a little bit too much … Why do you think the University’s autonomy is important and how can the school reconcile some of the hard feelings with the legislature and other groups around its independence.

… [T]hat is important for us to be above the political pushes and pulls so that we can focus on our missions of education and research and service. And there’s sometimes people who will view that autonomy as giving us too much freedom … The grain elevators in particular… [are] an example — we have worked with the neighborhoods, we have talked about an adaptive reuse …

Last month, the Board of Regents voted to demolish the electric steel elevators near TCF Bank stadium, with the intention of using the space for the displaced recreational sports bubble. But the regents didn’t make a final decision to place the bubble on the grain elevator site and a group of preservationists has filed a lawsuit against the University while the elevators’ historical significance is assessed. Because of these events, has there been pressure to find a different place for the rec sports bubble?

The regents wanted to explore alternate locations for the rec sports bubble. And we will work through that in the next regents’ meeting in December. With respect to the lawsuit … we will defend our position as resolutely as we can.

Petitions are being circulated around college campuses nationwide asking school leaders to establish “sanctuary campuses,” which would protect undocumented students and community members from deportation following the rhetoric of the presidential election. A petition has been filed to make the Twin Cities campus a sanctuary campus. Do you and your administration support establishing a sanctuary campus in the Twin Cities?

We want our students, from wherever they are, or however they’ve arrived, to feel safe here and to be able to continue their education … It’s premature for us to respond to those changes because it’s possible that there won’t be a change at all. But if there is a change, we will do everything we can to protect the welfare of our students.

Trends show a decrease in state appropriations to higher education in states with Republican-controlled legislatures. After the past election, Minnesota shifted to an entirely Republican-controlled House and Senate. Do you have concerns about state appropriations in the future under the new control?

We’re always concerned about state appropriations. It’s an important part of our job … I’ve had good preliminary conversations with Republican leaders in the House and the Senate and we will continue to have those discussions and continue to talk about the importance of the University of Minnesota …

The University has seen a surge in cases involving fake IDs in recent months, is this something the university I concerned about?

The University is always concerned about the opportunities for illegal activity around our campuses. The fact is that a phony ID is a crime and it also exposes students in most cases to discussion with the office of Student Conduct and Integrity.

How are campus climate issues going to progress after the election? Are there going to be any more campus climate talks? How will the University respond to some of the fears some students have following the election?

We have campus climate issues planned. We continue to have resources available for students who need support, but I think the secret here is conversation. I welcome conversation from student leaders around this campus climate work … We are in this together…

After a disappointing defeat to Wisconsin, the Gopher’s football record stands at 8-4. What are your thoughts on the Gophers as they enter the off-season?

We get a bowl bid. It’s likely to be a pretty attractive bowl. We’re likely to attract Gopher fans to that venue …

Do you think Coach Claeys has lived up to expectations?

I think Tracy has had a good year … Anybody’s first full year as head football coach is full of expectations and challenges, and I look forward to seeing his continued development.

The Gopher women’s volleyball team just finished up their regular-season schedule with a gauntlet of four ranked opponents, including No. 1 Nebraska and No. 3 Wisconsin. After winning all four games, the Gophers earned the number 2 overall seed when the 64-team tournament field was announced on Sunday. How do you feel about the state of the program?

It’s just excellent. We have one of the very best coaches in the country … I expect them to go very far … They’ve got every bit of athletic and coaching capacity.

What do you think the team’s success means for Gophers’ athletics?

I think Gophers athletics across the board has been really remarkably strong … I’m pleased with where athletics is.

Did you ever play volleyball in high school?

I played intramural volleyball, but I am not an athletic person in general.

This is our last Kickin’ It until after the Holidays. What do you want Santa to bring you for Christmas?

A bowl victory and a healthy grandchild. My first grandchild is due on the 27th.

Anything else? Not a new PlayStation or anything?

I’m not a PlayStation guy. You think I’m bad at volleyball, you should see me play video games. No, a healthy grandchild and a happy outcome for the Gophers is what I want.

Do you have a New Year’s Resolution yet?

It would probably be the classic one — be more patient with others and get in better shape.

How long do you expect that to last?

Oh, I’ll be patient for a while. As for exercising …