U of M regents pick Eric Kaler as next president

Eric Kaler
Stony Brook University Provost Eric Kaler answers questions during a public forum on November 17, 2010, at Coffman Memorial Union Theater at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Kaler was selected Thursday as president of the university.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

The University of Minnesota hired its 16th president on Thursday, offering him a compensation package worth $610,000, which would put him about in the middle of his fellow Big Ten presidents.

The University of Minnesota regents hired Eric Kaler, 54, provost of Stony Brook University in New York on a unanimous vote.

Kaler said he was overjoyed to get the job and return to the campus where he earned his Ph.D. in chemical engineering in 1982.

"The opportunity to come back to a place what was so meaningful, at such an important time for the university, and is such a wonderful place to start a presidency, it's just a thrill behind words," he said.

The regents picked Kaler after a one-hour public interview. Kaler was the top choice of 148 candidates screened by a university search committee.

He brings a vision of transforming the university into one of the top public universities in the nation, in the same league as Michigan, Virginia, North Carolina and the University of California at Berkeley.

Shortly after the regents voted, Kaler signed a four-year contract that will pay him a base salary of $610,000 plus another $50,000 in retirement income in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

His base will be $155,000 higher than that of outgoing President Robert Bruininks, but Bruininks is also being paid about $150,000 in extra retirement income this fiscal year.

Kaler spent most of Wednesday and Thursday morning meeting with deans, influential faculty members, students and top administrations. He apparently got glowing reviews.

Board Chairman Clyde Allen said he found the groups had "genuine enthusiasm" for Kaler, which was echoed in comments distributed to the regents and media during the meeting.

Allen said people outside the university who had seen news coverage of Kaler also seemed to like the pick. "I think he had touched the hearts of Minnesotans," Allen said.

Kaler's contract would put his compensation about in the middle of the Big Ten, Allen said. A spot check of salary data reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education suggests he's right. Kaler's compensation would be higher than that of major university presidents in Iowa and Wisconsin, but less than those of Ohio and Michigan, according to data from the 2008-2009 fiscal years, the most recent available.

Bruininks will step down in June to rejoin the faculty. When Kaler takes over July 1 he will take the reigns of a university with shrinking resources and a need for more painful budget cuts.

When asked how he would handle the situation, Kaler said it was too soon to give specifics but philosophically, "what you need to think about is, you need to replace state funding," he said.

If cuts must be made, he said, he would look to move resources away from administration and into education. Successful programs would grow, but unsuccessful ones could go. "If you can't do it well, you really ought to stop doing it," he said was his outlook.

As he said previously in interviews, he would also reach out to private individuals and philanthropic organizations for more money and do a better job of turning the university's intellectual property into money-making products.

In answer to questions from the regents, Kaler promised to support athletics, including sports that don't make money; the arts and the university's mission to improve agriculture in the state.

He said that while the university's Greek system of fraternities and sororities provided tremendous opportunities for undergraduates, they also needed university oversight, monitoring and evaluation.

Kaler quipped this has wife has been amused by all the media attention he has attracted since being named the lone finalist for the president's job last week. "As my wife points out, I've become substantially more interesting," he said.

Regent Dean Johnson asked Kaler why, given the university's budget problems and the state's massive deficit, he wanted to take over a university twice the size of Stony Brook with all the pressures that come with the job.

"Why would you leave Long Island to come to these insurmountable challenges and problems?" Johnson asked, tongue-in-cheek.

"I'll give you a very short answer," Kaler replied. "You only live once. If you do that and have an opportunity to live a life that can have an impact on an institution of the size and scope that you describe, you should take it."

Kaler said he plans to stay on at Stony Brook until he takes over at Minnesota.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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