After seven sometimes tumultuous years, Eric Kaler has decided to step down as president of the University of Minnesota in July 2019, a year ahead of schedule.
“A good leader knows when it’s time to go,” Kaler said Friday. “Quite frankly, it is time.”
In announcing his decision, Kaler, who has led the university since 2011, cited what he called “an incredibly demanding job, essentially seven days a week” and said, “I also know that the university will benefit from a fresh perspective.”
Kaler said he plans to spend a year as president emeritus, primarily fundraising for the university, before taking a sabbatical and returning to teaching.
Board of Regents Chairman David McMillan thanked Kaler for “his remarkable and extraordinary leadership of the U” and for giving the board a full year to find a successor. He said the search process would begin immediately.
Asked what he would look for in the U’s next leader, McMillan said, “I would like another Eric Kaler.”
Kaler, 61, has been a magnet for both criticism and praise as head of Minnesota’s largest and most prestigious public university. As president, Kaler has tangled with state lawmakers and members of his own board over rising tuition and other issues, and weathered a string of headline-grabbing controversies, including sexual misconduct in the athletics department.
Kaler said he began having conversations with board leaders six months ago about his plans to step down before his contract expires in 2020, and that his decision “crystallized in the last few weeks.”
When asked why he was leaving early, he said, “I have either accomplished or will have accomplished by the end of next year all that I set out to do.”
Among other things, he cited his efforts to hold tuition increases below the rate of inflation for Minnesota residents, as well as the university’s success in spinning off new businesses and raising record levels of philanthropic donations.
In a statement Friday, Gov. Mark Dayton praised Kaler for his “dedicated and principled leadership to the University of Minnesota” and said, “All of us owe him a debt of gratitude for his very important contributions to the betterment of our University and our State.”
‘A bit of a shame’
Just days ago, Kaler gave no public hint that he was about to announce his departure. On Wednesday, he tweeted: “I am #UMNproud to be beginning my eighth year as President of this remarkable #UMN system!” On Thursday, he broke the news to the regents at their annual board retreat.
On campus, Kaler’s announcement was not entirely a surprise, said Joseph Konstan, a computer science professor and faculty leader. He said rumors had been circulating that Kaler was thinking of stepping down.
“It’s a bit of a shame,” Konstan said Friday. “President Kaler has, in many ways, really hit his stride strongest in the last couple of years.” At the same time, he said, “I trust his judgment that this was the right time.”
State Rep. Bud Nornes, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, also gave Kaler “high marks” for his time as president.
“There has been a lot he’s had to deal with and not of his own doing,” said Nornes, R-Fergus Falls. “I’ve always found President Kaler to be very personable. He is a guy you can have a conversation with. He’s not aloof.”
But Rep. Gene Pelowski Jr., a Winona DFLer on the Higher Education Committee, said he had lost confidence in Kaler’s leadership.
“He started out as one of the strongest presidents I’ve ever seen during three decades in the Legislature,” Pelowski said Friday. “Subsequent to that, things have not gone as well.”
He cited Kaler’s frustrated efforts to persuade lawmakers to increase the U’s funding.
“I think he lost his way when the Legislature wasn’t responding to him and when he was hit numerous times with significant scandals,” Pelowski said. “In some cases, they were handled very poorly.”
But Kaler was popular on campus, particularly with student leaders.
“Something I really appreciated about President Kaler was how much he valued student opinion,” said Trish Palermo, the student body president last year. She said she worked with Kaler and his staff on a host of issues.
“President Kaler was a strong advocate for sexual assault prevention on campus,” Palermo said. “When the sexual assault issues came up, I asked for a meeting and I got it the next week.”
Kaler once described the U presidency as his dream job. He graduated from the U in 1982 with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, and was both a professor and administrator for much of his career. Before he became the U’s 16th president, Kaler was provost of Stony Brook University in New York.
On Friday, he emphasized that the decision to leave the presidency was his own.
In a campuswide statement issued Friday, Kaler said: “My wife, Karen, and I both thank you for your kindness, your friendship, and most of all, your contributions to this University. I know that whatever my legacy will be, it will include the proud phrase ‘The University of Minnesota.’ ”
Staff researcher John Wareham contributed to this report.