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Kaler steps into new job during tumultuous govt. shutdown

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Eric Kaler, University of Minnesota president
On his first day of his new job as president of the University of Minnesota, Eric Kaler meets with staff in his office. Kaler is surrounded by boxes of books and pictures waiting to be hung. He cleared away just enough room on one end of a long table to hold a morning meeting.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

The government shutdown has provided quite a welcome for Eric Kaler, whose first day as the new president of the University of Minnesota is today.

The U has enough reserve to stay open without state funding for at least a couple of months, but the challenge for Kaler will be to deal with declining state funding, tight budgets and concerns over rising tuition.

Kaler is taking over a university with 50,000 students, 20,000 employees and five campuses. He'll have to figure how they all fit together in a time of declining state support.

People shouldn't expect any big moves in his first few weeks on the job, Kaler said.

"I'm going to spend the first 90 to 100 days really doing a lot of listening. I'm going to speak to a broad number of constituencies and really meet as many people and get as many points of view as I can," Kaler said. "Over that period of time we'll begin to pull together the strategies for advancing the university."

Kaler said he'll likely announce some new initiatives for the university at his formal inauguration, which comes up in late-September.

RAISE THE BAR

Kaler, 54, comes to the University of Minnesota's top spot after 28 years in higher education. Most recently, Kaler served as provost of Stony Brook University in New York. Before that he was a dean at the University of Delaware.

His two decades of experience as a professor of engineering, scientist and researcher, will guide him in his new job, he said.

"I like to make decisions based on facts. I also think its important to challenge assumptions. Those are elements of the scientific method and I do bring those to administrative work."

He takes over a university that saw significant changes under the tenure of Robert Bruininks, outgoing president.

"I'm proud of the accomplishments of the last nine years," Bruininks said. "We set out to improve the quality, the excellence, the impact, the productivity and the accountability of the university during this period of time."

Bruininks said the best indicator of the U's improvement is the caliber of students the school attracts these days.

Under his tenure the university has become more selective, raising the bar for its applicants and requiring better grades. Full-time students are required to take at least 13 credits a semester.

Bob McMaster, U of M provost and dean of undergraduate education, said that's helped the U improve its four-year graduation rate to over 50 percent, double what it was 10 years ago.

"It also means that not everybody can get into the University of Minnesota," McMaster said. "This becomes a place for students who are very serious about learning."

The university welcomes 5,350 freshmen this fall. Nearly 40,000 students applied.

McMaster says the U will continue to be a selective university under the Kaler administration.

GROWING PAINS

Students who do get in will be paying much more in tuition that they would have a decade ago. Tuition doubled during Bruininks' time as president. Students on the Twin Cities campus are now paying over $12,000 a year for tuition and fees.

Financial aid for students has increased as well. The university raised and spent tens of millions of dollars to ease the tuition burden.

Abou Amara is in his second year of graduate school at the U's Humphrey School of Public Affairs. He's also the president of group that represents grad students on campus.

Amara fears that if tuition continues to increase compared to other schools, it's going to drive away students.

"If cost is that indicator and we continue to increase year after year after year at rates that are larger than other institutions, that's not going to bode well for us in upcoming years"

The University of Minnesota operates under what's called a "high tuition/high aid" model, which means students whose families can afford to pay the full cost of tuition essentially subsidize the financial aid for students from low income families.

Kaler said it's necessary to help low-income students pay for college, but questions whether the "high tuition/high aid" model is sustainable.

"It's time for us to think carefully about whether that model is sustainable," Kaler said. "If we decide its not sustainable, how else can we make maintain excellence at the University of Minnesota in the presence of declining state support?"

The university will have to replace state funding with more private donations, grants and other revenue, Kaler said. Even if he can increase revenue for the university, Kaler will have to deal with a tough budget situation over the next several years.

The U of M planned for a worst-case scenario of state funding cuts of nearly $71 million dollar next year. Such a cut would put state aid at the 1998 levels. State money pays for about 18 percent of the U's more than $3 billion dollar a year budget.

"It's impossible to cut this university to a point of excellence. We really need to focus on managing our cost but also on growing revenue."

How to do exactly that, Kaler isn't saying, but he has made some connection with the business community and with big donors.

INCLUSIVE LEADERSHIP

Those who have worked with Kaler in the past provides an indication of how he approaches tough challenges.

Michael Schwartz is a sociology professor at Stony Brook University in New York. He worked closely with Kaler as the school's university senate president during a time when the school faced budget cuts in the tens of millions of dollars.

"What he tended to do, in all of these situations is he said 'Look, let's decide what we want our outcome to be. Let's make some really intelligent decisions about where we want to be at the end of this mess and then make the decisions on the basis of how to get from here to there in some kind of effective way.' "

Schwartz said Kaler struck him as a inclusive leader.

That's what Arnie Shertzer saw as well. Shertzer heads up a union for staff at Stony Brook.

"He's not going to close his doors and become a hermit. You'll see him be a very involved part of the entire campus operation," Shertzer said.

Employees at the University of Minnesota are hoping for the same from Kaler in his new job.

Eva von Dassow is a professor of classics and near Eastern studies at the U's college of liberal arts.

"Kaler strikes many of us as a very creative fellow," she said.

Von Dassow hopes Kaler isn't afraid to make changes in how the U functions overall.

"We know he's interested in looking for ways to improve things and not just continuing with the structures he's inheriting."

FIRST DAY HUMILITY

Kaler's first day in the president's office at the University of Minnesota consisted of several of meetings.

"OK, we're supposed to meet to talk about my schedule I understand."

Kaler's surrounded by boxes of books and pictures waiting to be hung. He cleared away just enough room on one end of a long table to hold a morning meeting with his staff.

So much for the glamorous life of a university president.

"I am moving in, unfortunately there is a lot of stuff. My house looks exactly the same," Kaler said. "But it all has a place to go and it will get there in a little bit."

It's not only books and pictures that he'll have to figure out what to do with.