U of M president finalist fields questions in first public interview

Eric Kaler
Stony Brook University Provost Eric Kaler answers questions during a public forum on November 17, 2010, at Coffman Memorial Union Theate at the University of Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

The lone finalist in the search for the next president at the University of Minnesota had a very public and very wide-ranging job interview on the U's Minneapolis campus Wednesday.

Eric Kaler, a provost at Stony Brook University in New York, sat on a stage in Coffman Union and answered questions submitted by faculty, staff and students.

Kaler faced some big picture questions during the public interview in front of about 175 people.

One being: "What qualifies you to run the U of M?"

He answered by laying out his experience as an administrator. But he also reminded the audience of mostly faculty members that his more than 20 years as a professor keeps him focused on the classroom.

"I get it when it comes to staffing classes, the need to organize, the need to deliver the missions of service research and education," Kaler said.

Kaler said he wants to see money transferred from the administrative side of the U of M, like HR and enrollment, and put into the classroom.

Eric Kaler
Kaler is the sole finalist for the role of president of the university.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

As president, he said he'd bring in consultants to help the U streamline some of those operations, so it can run the business side of campus more efficiently. He said increasing tuition would be the last resort to raise revenue.

Kaler made his way up the ranks in Washington, Delaware and New York as a professor, a department chair, a dean and finally a provost.

His background is in science; he's a chemical engineer and earned his Ph.D. at the U of M in 1982. That has some at the U wondering how the humanities would fare with a scientist in the president's office.

Kaler said the liberal arts are the core of higher education and will remain strong if he's president.

"I'm going to invest in the liberal arts and humanities; they are not going to wane, if I'm fortunate enough to be the next president of this university," he said. "They will not wane on my watch ... that will not happen."

The topic of alcohol abuse among college students came up in one question. Kaler said cracking down on binge drinking among students may not be the answer, and could make the situation worse. He favors programs that educate students about the dangers of drinking too much.

"Education and responsibility," he said. "And frankly, appropriate adult supervision of the residence halls and the Greek system need to be in place to minimize those dangers."

Kaler was asked about the role of sports at the University of Minnesota. It's a timely question, just last month the U's head football coach Tim Brewster was fired after a dismal start to the season. The U is currently looking for a new coach to turn around the Gopher football team after years of losing seasons.

Kaler said sports is the window that lets outsiders see into the U of M, and so winning teams are important for a successful university.

"This is a Big 10 school. It's one that should have a distinguished athletics program that compliments the image of the university and enhances our visibility across the country," he said.

Kaler also said he's committed to raising the academic achievement of student athletes at the U of M if he's the next president.

After the forum, graduate student Jonathan Brown said Kaler gave him the impression he would be ready to lead from day one.

"It was interesting to see how he had so many ideas formulated already in such a wonderfully developed way," Brown said. "It wasn't just general ideas; it wasn't just general talking points. He had a lot of nice specific ideas, a lot of great experience that he was ready to transfer over."

Kaler will get one more day to make a good impression at the U of M. He'll face another public job interview late this morning, this time in front of the board of regents.

Chair of the board Clyde Allen said the regents will need time to digest everything they hear from Kaler, but Allen hints that Kaler could be named the next president of the University of Minnesota sometime shortly after today's meeting.

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