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As the Seawolves football team lurched to their first big win this year, Stony Brook University Provost Eric Kaler stood on the sidelines, vowing to help the team build national presence.
"That's leadership, and that's courage," Athletic Director Jim Fiore said of Kaler's role in turning a have-not athletic department without school colors into one with six conference championships last year.
"He's going to look good in maroon and gold," Fiore added, "and I'm excited for the people of Minnesota. It's a home run for them."
Kaler, the 1982 University of Minnesota graduate who was named the sole finalist for the U's president position on Friday, drew praise from colleagues who have watched him rise through the academic ranks.
"We're a little sad today. I think I can say that for everyone at the university," said Stony Brook Deputy Provost W. Brent Lindquist. "I think Minnesota's got a good president."
If officially selected, Kaler, a 54-year-old Vermont native, will jump from the No. 2 position of New York's Stony Brook University, a school with about 24,000 students and about 900 faculty, to the top job at the U, which has 67,364 students and 4,105 faculty spread over four campuses statewide.
"I think he's got the right personality to manage it," said Lanny Schmidt, a chemical engineering professor at the U. "He doesn't have an enemy that I know of. He gets along with everyone."
Fast rise in academia
Schmidt knew Kaler when he attended the U and has followed his climb from professor to provost over a 28-year career in education.
"He was a bright, friendly, good guy," said Schmidt. "He's had a meteoric career since then."
Kaler has not let go of his Minnesota ties, returning several times to his alma mater for speaking events. "I still have a Homer Hanky," he said.
After earning his doctorate degree in chemical engineering from Minnesota, Kaler went on to teach at the University of Washington for seven years and then to the University of Delaware for 18 years, where he taught chemical engineering, was department chair and eventually, the college dean.
Mark Barteau helped recruit the young professor to Delaware.
"He looked like the sort of bright, creative individual we wanted in our department," said Barteau, now a senior vice provost there. Since then, "he's been honing his talents through a series of positions ... for quite some time."
While Kaler had to make some tough decisions as dean at Delaware, Barteau said he managed them well.
In 2007, Kaler was named Stony Brook's provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. In the role, he has supervised academic programs and curriculum.
Along with the university's president, Lindquist said Kaler has helped school leaders make hard choices.
Two external school locations were downsized and 10 percent of the budget was cut, he said. However, academic programs were maintained, and Kaler made a point to listen carefully to staff. "He makes extremely reasoned decisions," Lindquist said.
A head for science and politics
But it's Kaler's appreciation for research that impressed Barney Grubbs. That was one of the reasons Grubbs chose to work at Stony Brook.
"He's an excellent provost," the associate chemistry professor said. "I think we'll miss him because he's been very good for research and education. He's provided a supportive environment."
That support has transferred from the academic wings to the athletic fields.
Fiore said Kaler was skillful at fundraising and changing the culture on campus to one that values athletics, too.
"He's just very passionate about athletics," he said.
Earlier this year, Kaler was elected to the National Academy of Engineering -- one of the highest professional distinctions for engineers.
"I've had a good year indeed ... [and] hope to continue having a good year," he said.
Frank Bates is confident Kaler will.
The head of the U's department of chemical engineering and materials science has known Kaler for more than 25 years and said Kaler is warm and personable -- skills that will bode well for running the university and boosting fundraising.
He brings "great passion for the job and enthusiasm and vision," he said. "He's a clear leader."
Staff writers Rose French and Jenna Ross contributed to this report. Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141