Q & A with U of Minn. finalist Eric Kaler

The University of Minnesota's choice to become the school's new president is Eric Kaler, currently a provost at Stony Brook University in New York. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 1982.

Kaler spoke with MPR's Tom Crann on Friday about his background and why he thinks he's the best candidate for the job.

Tom Crann: First, what interested you in this position at the University of Minnesota?

Eric Kaler: Really two things. As you know, I graduated from the University (of Minnesota) in 1982, and that was a transformative time for me. The university really made a difference in my life, and so when you couple that with the fact that it is one of the best universities in the United States, maybe in the world, it's really a combination that was very hard for me to pass up.

Crann: You obviously made a case for getting the job and it resonated with the Board of Regents, so they've picked you as the finalist. What was that case?

Kaler: I think a combination of background and personality, I guess. The background is a pretty traditional academic one, through department chairs to deans to a provost, and so I've got a pretty good span of experience in the academic world. And at Stony Brook, we also manage Brookhaven National Laboratory, so I've seen a large DOE science operation up close.

And then you've got to choose a president that you feel comfortable with, and I'm very pleased that the advisory committee and others that I've met feel comfortable with me as a candidate.

Crann: The University of Minnesota is about twice as large as the institution you'd be coming from, at least the campus of the university that you're in charge of. There are a lot of constituencies here -- athletics, the hospital, multiple campuses, donors. So how do you go about positioning yourself to get all the stamps of approval you need, and at the same time realistically lead the U in the direction that you would want to take it if you get the job?

Kaler: Clearly, the first part of the answer involves a lot of listening. I certainly need to get the feel of the culture at Minnesota to begin to understand what the stakeholders, what the faculty and staff and students view as important, really begin to understand and connect with the leaders of the state, political leaders who place such an important role in establishing funding and programs for the university. So there's a process of getting embedded in that group.

Stony Brook is a complicated place as well. We have a national laboratory. We have an academic medical center. We have Division 1 athletics, although not fully of the scale of Minnesota or the Big Ten, obviously. So I'm pretty familiar with the scope of what I'll see there. And then it's a matter of building the communication, building trust, and then teams that can move the university towards where we all want it to be. It's not going to be a one-man show.

Crann: Where do you want it to be? What's your vision, if you could outline it briefly for us?

Kaler: It's easy. I don't see why we can't, with continued and sustained effort, move the university to the top ranks of public institutions in the United States. I don't see why we can't have Minnesota mentioned in the same breath as Michigan and Virginia and Berkeley and North Carolina, and other top-flight public research universities in the United States. Minnesota should be in that group.

Crann: You're obviously aware of the goal of your predecessor to be among the top three research institutions, and as a scientist yourself -- your background, academically, is in chemical engineering -- what do you think of that goal?

Kaler: I think it's a laudable goal. It's an interesting tagline. I'm not sure that I'd want to identify being No. 3 as the only place I'd want to be. I think a broader discussion of excellence across everything the institution does -- in terms of research and teaching and service and outreach -- is really very important, so a focus on across-the-board excellence.

Crann: A lot of alums identify with the U specifically through the athletic programs, Big Ten athletics here. It's a bigger deal than it would be at Stony Brook. What do you think the proper place for athletics is for a big university like the U of M?

Kaler: I'm incredibly excited about athletics. For many people, athletics is the window they use to see the university and it's a door they use to visit the university. It's a critically important part of the university's outreach and really the university's impact. So it's very important that it be done well.

And by well, it's not the score on the court or the field, but it's having a program of the highest integrity. It's having a program in which student athletes are treated well, mentored and guided, and have a very positive experience, and it's a program that represents the university well, so that's what I want to see in the athletics world.

Crann: There's the challenge of funding. The state allotment here for the U of M had fallen tens of millions in the past several years. You yourself are part of a large -- the state University of New York system. What experience do you bring there when it comes to funding, especially public funding at the Legislature?

Kaler: I have to say that while the Minnesota cuts have been substantial, they're not as large as we've taken at SUNY. So a great deal of my time over the past two and a half to three years has been focused on doing things better and doing them more efficiently, providing pathways to students for graduation in a situation in which the availability of classes is shrinking. We've expanded the masters programs, which are very helpful to students and very good revenue sources.

The things that have been done at Minnesota I think are, as far as I can tell, (have) all been very good steps, and very similar to what we've done here. So I'm very familiar with managing those cuts, and really trying to identify additional revenue sources that can move programs forward. You can't just cut programs indefinitely. You've got to find revenue sources to invest, whether those are additional students or private funding resources.

Crann: You're scheduled for a round of in-person interviews and meetings next week. What do you still have to learn about the University of Minnesota to find out if it's the right fit?

Kaler: I intend to listen a great deal when I'm on campus. I'm just really looking forward to the chance to hear from faculty and staff and students about their concerns, and their vision for the institution.

I don't expect a lot of surprises. I think I understand the mission of the university. I think I understand people are going to be anxious about budgets, and they're going to be anxious about where we're going to go. I think it's a good fit. I think it's a great fit, and I'm looking forward to talking to people, and I guess trying to convince them that I'm the right guy for them.

(Interview transcribed and edited by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran)