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University of Minnesota welcomes new president

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University of Minnesota welcomes new president
Eric Kaler addresses the audience at Ted Mann Concert Hall in Minneapolis after being sworn in as the 16th president of the University of Minnesota on Sept. 22, 2011.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Eric Kaler was officially inaugurated as the president of the University of Minnesota Thursday, and let those at the school know he's a tough boss who expects a lot from them. 

Kaler, who turns 55 Friday, was hired to fill the school's top spot this summer. 

Kaler's inauguration ceremony was rich in university tradition, with robed faculty walking in procession into the hall, speeches, orchestral and choral music, and a video message of congratulations from alumni around the world.

Dignitaries, academics, and politicians were all on hand at the Ted Mann Concert Hall on the U of M's Minneapolis campus to participate in the event. 

  Gov. Mark Dayton presented Kaler a silver staff topped with a crystal globe, known as the mace.

  "By the power vested in me by the state of Minnesota, I present you with the mace of the University of Minnesota, a symbol of leadership," said Dayton. "May you lead it to greatness."

Linda Cohen, chairwoman of the university's Board of Regents, presented Kaler with the university medallion, another symbol of leadership. 

In his inauguration speech, Kaler promised to push the university forward, and to elevate it in stature as a research university.  

The focus of Kaler's speech was on the hard work he sees in changing how things operate at the U of M.  He promised to cut administration costs every year.  And he called for the U to re-examine everything it does in order to find more efficiencies. 

"In every aspect of university operations, we need to question what we do.  We need to see if it has the intended outcome, if we could do it better, or not at all."

Kaler offered a blunt message to faculty: Pick up the pace and do better work.  

"To my faculty colleagues, your work drives this university.  But if your research is stale, if your classroom is boring, if your community engagement is ineffective, you must reinvent yourself or frankly, step aside," he said.

Kaler told the audience he needs the help of students, faculty, lawmakers and the people of Minnesota to strenghten the university, especially in tough economic times.   

"Together we can fulfill this university's extraordinary promise, but my friends, we have work to do," he said.  

His emphasis on redesigning the university in a time of shrinking state resources echoed many of the themes Steven Rosenstone, the new chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, made Tuesday in presenting his vision for change to the MnSCU trustees.

      They both are calling for the state to invest more resources in higher education. Kaler said it would pay off in lower costs to students and fuel the University of Minnesota's research mission, which over the years has produced developments from the pacemaker to the Honeycrisp apple.

      "I can guarantee you this: If we don't invest, if we don't attract and retain the best scientists, if we don't recruit and support the best young investigators, we absolutely will not discover new things," Kaler said.

 Gov. Dayton pledged his support for the university. "If we want excellence from its graduates, we must fund and support its own excellence," Dayton told the crowd. 

Kaler also called for greater collaboration between the university and Minnesota businesses.  And he pleaded with alumni and others to give more of their time, and their money, to support the U of M. 

In addition, he announced his family would fund a scholarship program that will support four undergraduate students a year at the U. 

After the inauguration ceremony, Kaler made his way across campus to greet students and staff.  His first stop was the U of M bowling alley in the basement of the student union, where he borrowed a bowling ball from a student and took a turn on one of the lanes.   

Kaler's aim was a bit wide, and he only took out a few pins. But he was welcomed warmly by those who lined up throughout the bowling alley, waiting to shake his hand.  

"It's a historic day, and I just wanted to be here to share in that," said Nick Lambert, 18, a freshman from Omaha, who came to meet the man who will steer the U while he's a student.  

"A president brings his own kind of charisma, his own plan for changing school and making it better," said Lambert. "I think it matters who the president is."

Faculty members turned out as well to meet their new boss -- the man who says he expects them to work harder than they have before. 

Peter Mercer-Taylor, a professor in the U's School of Music, liked what he called Kaler's "straight talk."  

"I walked away from the whole thing just very inspired, and ready to buckle down and move into a new era if we can carve one out," he said. 

  Kaler was hired in November and took over this summer from Robert Bruininks, who returned to teaching. Kaler came to Minnesota from Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York.

(AP writer Chris Williams contributed to this report)