New U president: 'Pick up the pace'

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 23, 2011 - 10:48 AM

Eric Kaler uses his inaugural speech to urge a change in culture to propel the University of Minnesota to the top.

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U President Eric Kaler and his wife, Karen Kaler, walked across the Washington Avenue Bridge on Thursday, greeting students and Goldy Gopher.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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Amid the pomp and trumpets, new University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler used his inauguration Thursday to call on faculty, staff and Minnesotans to transform the university into one of the nation's best.

To great applause, he announced that his family had created a full-tuition scholarship for four students a year who otherwise couldn't afford to attend the U. He challenged others to make similar commitments. He asked faculty to share their research with the broader community. He called on the state to invest in "Minnesota's only research university."

If it does not, "we will wither as a university," he said. "We will decline as a state."

Kaler's speech was just one part of a week of fanfare that crested with the inaugural ceremony and will continue Friday. By the time he took the stage at Ted Mann Concert Hall on Thursday, Kaler had toured the St. Paul campus, stopped by a dairy farm and thrown out the first pitch at a Twins game.

Wearing a maroon robe with black velvet bars -- symbolizing the Ph.D. he earned at the U -- Kaler accepted the mace from Gov. Mark Dayton and kneeled to receive the medallion from the chair of the Board of Regents.

But Kaler's speech was free of pageantry, attendees said later. He spoke plainly about the need for the university to reinvent itself "to meet the global needs of the 21st century."

He called for a change in culture -- "a reset that drives us to be more entrepreneurial, less risk-averse and better partners." He pledged to reduce administrative costs "every single year" of his presidency.

"We must reduce bureaucracy, focus on shared values and, as you have heard me say before, pick up the pace," he said.

Goldy, fancied up

He told U faculty that their work "drives this university." But, he added: "If your research is stale, if your classroom is boring, if your community engagement is ineffective, you must reinvent yourself or, frankly, step aside."

Walking through Coffman Memorial Union afterward, U employee Beth Mercer-Taylor asked her husband, a faculty member in the College of Music, whether the speech left him feeling inspired -- or threatened? Inspired, Peter Mercer-Taylor answered.

"Any time there is a change in leadership, you ask yourself, 'What is he going to push us to do?'" he later said. "It's a moment for us all to step back and ask: What are the potentials? How could this place move?"

At 1 o'clock, hundreds of students in matching T-shirts that read "One big, happy, golden family" lined the pedestrian bridge between campus' west and east banks. Each had received a gold sheet of instructions: "Wear your gold Inauguration T-shirt. Stay in your assigned zone to ensure a full line of greeters. Feel free to clap, shake hands or high-five the president."

Kaler arrived 45 minutes later. A handful of cheerleaders and Goldy Gopher -- in tuxedo-like wear -- greeted him and led him down the line of students. The cheers spread from one end of the bridge to the other.

Electrical engineering student Emal Alwis, who was assigned to zone 20, shook Kaler's hand, then moved with the crowd, snapping photos with his phone.

"I look toward it optimistically," Alwis said of Kaler's presidency, "that good change can come."

A mission at risk

Kaler started work July 1. He is just the second of the university's 16 presidents to have graduated from the University of Minnesota. He earned a Ph.D. in chemical engineering at the U in 1982.

He began his speech by remembering first coming to the university in 1978. "That was my first encounter with the excellence of this university, and with the mission and public support that made it accessible to me."

"But those twin pillars of excellence and access at the university ... have never been more at risk."

That's why he chose to come to the U, Kaler said. He hopes to strengthen that mission and place the U among the group of best public research universities in the nation.

Two fellow alumni think he can do it.

Twin brothers Duane and Glenn Engebretson graduated from the University of Minnesota's College of Pharmacy in 1943, then opened a drugstore in North Dakota, eventually retiring in 1972. The U invited them to the inauguration, so they flew to Minnesota from Arizona, where they now live.

The smiling 90-year-olds posed for pictures with Kaler and his two sons, Charlie and Sam. They wore "I met Dr. K" pins designed by Kaler's wife, Karen, which she and others handed out.

"We're a little hard of hearing," Duane Engebretson admitted, so they didn't catch all of Kaler's speech. But they were impressed by what they did hear.

"He'll be great," he said. "I don't mean to be facetious, but he's smart enough to know what to say."

The pomp continues Friday. Dayton has declared it "Maroon and Gold Day." Kaler's presidential portrait will be unveiled. On top of it all, it's Kaler's 55th birthday. An e-mail encouraged students to gather for a surprise party for "Dr. K."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

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