Big challenges lie ahead for the man chosen to be the next president of the University of Minnesota.
The university's Board of Regents officially hired Eric Kaler, a provost at Stony Brook University in New York, after two days of interviews on campus. He was the only finalist for the job.
Kaler takes his seat in the president's office next summer, when current president Robert Bruininks contract expires.
Eric Kaler can't offer lots of details on what he'll do as president. There are some big-picture issues he's interested in, like boosting the four-year graduation rate and increasing diversity in the student body and faculty.
But specifics on everything else will have to wait, Kaler said after he accepted the job Thursday afternoon, until he's had time to study up. "There's a lot to learn," Kaler said. "I anticipate on being back on campus many times in the next seven months, and also having extensive phone conversations and other interactions with staff and faculty as I get my arms around the operation."
Kaler is likely to inherit an unenviable budget situation when he takes over next summer. Higher education officials are bracing for cuts as the state faces a nearly $6 billion budget shortfall over the next two years.
Kaler isn't sure what that will mean for state funding to the university. So he's planning to look for savings on the school's business side, money that could be better used in the classroom.
"I'm hoping to find money," he said. "I'm hoping to find money by identifying processes that we are currently using that can be more efficient, or not done at all." Kaler wants to bring in a group of outside consultants to help the university find some of those efficiencies. That may sound frightening to workers at the university, but he assured them he's no a hatchet man.
"We're not going to slash and burn," Kaler said. "But we are going to look critically at best practices from higher education operations around the country, and putting them into place, so we really are a model of efficiency."
And Kaler said despite fears that his background as a chemical engineer will make him more likely to turn his back on the arts and humanities, he said he's committed to the liberal arts and hopes to strengthen them at the U of M.
That's the sort of assurance that has many at the school feeling good about the choice of Kaler.
"We congratulate the Regents on their choice, and we are also congratulating Eric Kaler on his choice. We are happy he's going to be the next president," said Eva von Dassow, who is in the university's College of Liberal Arts.
But there's still a lingering concern for some about how the process of choosing the university's next president took place. The Board of Regents publicly named only one finalist for the job, because they said Kaler was the best choice. The problem with that would have become evident, von Dassow said, if Kaler had turned down the job.
"We wouldn't have been able to go back into the candidate pool very easily and say to someone who was not chosen as the single finalist, 'OK, maybe we'll try you after all,'" she said.
Clyde Allen, the chair of the Board of Regents, maintains that choosing only one finalist to bring to campus for interviews was the best thing to do.
"And I think we've made the right choice. One finalist, yes, but it was the right finalist," Allen said.
When the regents began their search for president last summer, they pondered how much money to put on the table to attract a quality candidate. On average, public university presidents pull down about $500,000 a year, but many top $1 million.
Apparently $610,000 was enough for Eric Kaler, which is almost twice his salary at Stony Brook University. He'll get $50,000 a year in retirement funds in the second, third and fourth years of his contract.
That's comparable to what current president Robert Bruininks makes. His base salary is $450,000 a year, but retirement compensation brings his total to $650,000, and makes him one of the top paid public university presidents in the country.