President Eric Kaler reaffirmed his commitment to protect freedom of speech and fight sexual misconduct at the University of Minnesota in his annual state-of-the-university address Thursday.

Kaler identified a series of challenges facing Minnesota’s largest public university as he nears the end of his seventh year as president.

“I see us wrestling with a handful of tricky issues,” he said in prepared remarks. “We’re struggling with differing views and sensibilities of free speech and expression. We’re regularly responding to the uncertain policies of Washington — particularly as it applies to our international students and our Dreamers. We’re fighting back — as is the rest of the nation — against the national and campuswide sexual misconduct crisis.”

At the same time, Kaler said, “at times like these, we especially need to take a breath and recognize the enormous successes of this university.” Among the highlights he cited is a dramatic improvement in the four-year graduation rate of low-income students — now 60 percent, up from 35 percent 10 years ago. “That’s real progress,” he said.

He also noted that a national group, the Center for Measuring University Performance, has rated the Twin Cities campus among the top eight in the country in a range of categories, from research funding to SAT and ACT scores to philanthropic gifts.

“I said at my inauguration in 2011 that I wanted to be mentioned in the same conversation with Berkeley, Michigan and North Carolina,” Kaler said, “and, by just about every measure, we can be.”

Kaler described the struggle over free speech as “perhaps the hottest” issue on college campuses. “We have to grapple with and find ways to manage the differences of opinion,” he said. “We must dedicate ourselves to promoting free speech while still fostering a campus climate that supports equity, diversity and inclusion. This, of course, includes a diversity of thought and the ability to learn how to disagree with each other with civility.”

Kaler also defended the university’s handling of Monday’s speech by conservative activist Ben Shapiro. Critics complained that the U should have provided a larger venue for the former Breitbart editor, who was restricted to a student center on the St. Paul campus for security reasons.

“All things considered, I think we did a respectable job,” said Kaler. “While some disagreed with the speaker’s message, he was able to speak and deliver his point of view in a safe environment.”

Kaler also said the university is moving ahead with plans for a large initiative to prevent sexual misconduct. “I hope to be remembered for paving the groundwork for a deep and lasting culture change around sexual misconduct across our campuses,” he said.