Lone U of M finalist for president set for regents interviews

Eric W. Kaler
Eric W. Kaler was named the finalist by the University of Minnesota board of regents for the president position at the university on Nov. 12, 2010.
Photo from Stony Brook University

Eric Kaler, who could be the next president of the University of Minnesota, will face a round of tough interviews over the next two days.

In making Kaler the sole finalist last week, the university's board of regents highlighted his resume as an accomplished academic and skilled administrator.

Kaler, 54, relied on those skills to become provost at the Stony Brook University in New York. Those who know him best say he's a workaholic.

Kaler said there's a good reason for that assessment. It's true.

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"There's a great cartoon in the New Yorker in which the man is on vacation at the beach and his kids are building sand castles and he's build a desk out of sand and is sitting behind it," he said. "I'm one of those guys."

Kaler's 22-year-old son Sam, who is majoring in building science at Auburn University, said as far back as he and his brother Charlie can remember, dad was constantly on the job.

"One of us asked her 'Mom, how come some dads work five days of the week and our dad works all the days of the week?' "

Eric Kaler said he does have some spare time. He enjoys woodworking, and is building new lamp posts for his house in Stony Brook, N.Y. right now.

He's a sports fan who enjoys college football and baseball. His favorite team is the Philadelphia Phillies.

But Kaler admits to a genuine fondness for the Minnesota Twins that grew out of his time at the University of Minnesota, where in 1982 he earned his Ph.D. in chemical engineering.

Kaler was born in Vermont, but his father was in the Air Force, so he grew up all over the country.

He met his future wife Karen when he was an intern doing research at Oak Ridge Laboratories at the University of Tennessee. She was an art student working in a residence hall on campus.

"There were always a lot of cute boys around and they were always wanting to talk to the girls," she said. "I talked to a lot of guys, and knew a lot of guys. But Eric talked to me about his research."

In a move that should give hope to nerds everywhere, Eric Kaler wooed Karen with talk of micro-emulsions, surfactants and small angle X-ray scattering.

"I had never heard those words," she said. "I didn't know how any of that worked as an art major I certainly had not studied that. So I was really charmed and impressed to hear about science."

Frank Bates, head of the chemical engineering and materials science department at the University of Minnesota, became friends with Kaler after they did research together. They've kept in touch since.

Bates admires Kaler for his ambition.

"He's professionally achieved what most folks in this business look for," Bates said. "He's gotten major awards for his research and was elected this year to the National Academy of Engineering, which is probably the highest achievement technically for someone in our business."

Kaler has spent 28-years in higher education as a professor, a dean and most recently provost at Stony Brook University in New York, his current position.

His colleagues at Stony Brook offer glowing praise, they say he's friendly, has a surprising sense of humor and is extremely fair.

But Kaler isn't entirely without detractors.

New York Assemblyman Fred Thiele is upset with how Kaler and other administrators handled the closure of a Stony Brook satellite campus in his district. Thiele, a member of the Independence Party, doesn't see Kaler as someone who's open to compromise.

"My sense of it is that he seems afraid or unable to deal with stakeholders that are involved in a decision," Thiele said.

Others say even though the campus closing was unfortunate, Kaler did a good job handling a tough situation.

Artie Shertzer, who heads a union representing faculty and staff at Stony Brook University, said he and Kaler don't always agree, but he can always count on Kaler to be pleasant and reasonable.

"We battle it out inside the office," Shertzer said. "When we go out we respect a respectful, genuine front of friendship and mutual respect."

Now it's the University of Minnesota's turn to get a sense of Eric Kaler's personality.

He'll take part in a public forum this afternoon with students, faculty and staff.

Thursday morning he faces a public interview with the university's board of regents.