Eight months is early in the tenure of any CEO, particularly one at the helm of an enterprise as large and complex at the University of Minnesota. President Eric Kaler has lots of running room ahead of him.
But eight months is not too early for impressions to form. With a strong State of the University address last Thursday, Kaler enhanced his reputation as a no-nonsense taskmaster who won't condone inefficiency simply because "we've always done it that way."
• Few features of academic life are more hidebound than institutional calendars built around a long summer vacation. That relic of the 19th century won't do for the 21st, Kaler said Thursday. He proposes that the university move to a year-round calendar, with three "semesters" of about 15 weeks each.
The benefits he touted: Faster and less-costly degree completion for some students, more-flexible timing for faculty research, and more efficient utilization of the university's academic resources.
We see one more. As Minnesota's educational flagship, the university is the pacesetter for the rest of higher education and, more significant in this case, for K-12. Research shows that long summer breaks are counterproductive to academic progress for many learners, especially young ones from low-income families. Minnesotans ought to turn critical eyes on school calendars, and the university can inspire that scrutiny.
• Through the years, 265 academic specialty areas -- called "centers" or "institutes" -- have found a home at the U and have chugged along with only routine oversight, even though their budgets run to $200 million annually. Kaler announced that they are undergoing systematic review and that he expects some of them to be eliminated.
• Other aspects of university life are subjected to too much administrative handling, Kaler said, and are also being reviewed. He outlined a "risk recalibration initiative" aimed at eliminating redundant procedures and excessive recordkeeping. One small change in accounting for capital equipment depreciation has already resulted in a one-third reduction in the number of items whose ages and values must be tracked each year, he reported.
• In response to questions, Kaler declined to defend decisions by his predecessor, President Robert Bruininks, to award $2.8 million in "transitional leave" compensation to administrators ending executive service and heading back to faculty ranks. "I'm a new president," Kaler said. "You watch what I do before you judge how I do it."
To that point: Kaler came under fire recently for giving outgoing athletic director Joel Maturi a one-year appointment at $468,000 in salary and benefits. But Maturi isn't on sabbatical. He's on the job as a fundraiser. His skill in that realm is needed more than ever after major state funding cuts to higher education in 2011.
Eye-popping salaries, benefits and golden parachutes have become common in American higher education in the last 20 years. They are a reflection of the CEO compensation explosion in the private sector. Both draw from the same executive talent pool.
The University of Minnesota would be ill-served by a decision to stop fishing in that pool. But it ought not opt for more generosity than market norms dictate. The Board of Regents should examine the institution's recent compensation practices for administrators in transition, and determine whether tighter policies are needed to keep future departure packages consistent with the dictates of prudent public-sector stewardship.
• Kaler isn't one for whining about cuts in state support for university operations. But to his credit, he didn't sugarcoat the consequences (see box, above).
For more than a decade, the biggest single reason for tuition increases at public colleges and universities in Minnesota and around the country has been a reduction in state government support for higher education. The most recent blow for the U was a 15 percent reduction enacted last summer.
The latest state budget forecast projects another deficit in 2014-15. In recent years, no state budget deficit has been erased without lawmakers taking a bite out of higher-ed funding. If that pattern continues next year, legislators should expect to hear straight talk from a no-nonsense university president about who bears responsibility for the higher tuition that will result.
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