The president is seen as affable and thoughtful, but can he wangle big bucks from the Legislature?
University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler, about to embark on his second semester, worked with local third- and fourth-graders during a Department of Chemistry “Energy and U” event last week. In addition to schools, Kaler spends time in the business community.
Six months in, new University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler is still honeymooning.
His choice for provost has proved popular. His call to "pick up the pace" was met with raised eyebrows and respect. His announcement that he will probably order an outside review of the U's Academic Health Center was praised by those who believe the place needs a tough look.
Aided by his career as a chemical engineer, Kaler has honed a reputation for such tough, fact-based looks. Yet at Rotary lunches and Gopher games, he's also displayed the affable nature necessary for fundraising and lobbying.
Kaler, who last served as provost of Stony Brook University in New York, has adopted the mannerisms of a Minnesotan. He jokes about the weather, has had his likeness carved in butter, and when on the road stops at Dairy Queen.
"Real Minnesotans enjoy DQ treats in December," he tweeted, posing with a chocolate-dipped cone.
This spring semester, which starts Tuesday, Kaler will test his skills at the Capitol, where he will lobby for a $169.5 million chunk of the bonding bill.
"I cannot wait until he gets over there and starts squeezing some hands," said Bill Gleason, an associate professor who never would have uttered such a thing about the last U president.
From the start, Kaler has emphasized financial access to the university. Yet despite the public's weariness of tuition hikes, he's also gathered support for a plan to charge business undergraduates more.
In the fall issue of a U magazine, Kaler pledged to "push back on anything that begins to put a financial barrier in front of qualified students."
Higher tuition for Carlson
When the final state budget agreement lessened cuts to the university's funding, Kaler told students they would benefit. In-state undergrads will see a 3.5 percent tuition increase in 2012-13, rather than the 5 percent planned. That 3.5 percent increase is "pretty firm," he said last week.
But Kaler also backed a proposal to charge undergraduates in the Carlson School of Management $2,000 more than their classmates -- a dramatic change to the U's egalitarian tuition model. The extra revenue would pay for additional professors.
"We've looked extraordinarily carefully at the impact of that increase," Kaler said. Most other Big Ten schools charge their business undergraduates more, he pointed out. Carlson graduates have strong starting salaries. And the university will help needy families with scholarships.
"The combination of financial aid and the marketplace, I think, is consistent with the idea of not putting a barrier in front of qualified students," Kaler said. He pledged that the proportion of low-income students in Carlson would not diminish.
Although a few students and professors have objected, the surcharge has generally gotten favorable reviews and the support of the Board of Regents.
"When I first looked at this idea, I thought, no way," Regent Laura Brod said last month. She then went on to praise the plan.
Picking up the pace
During his inaugural speech, Kaler called on the university to "reduce bureaucracy, focus on shared values and, as you have heard me say before, pick up the pace."
It's a motto Kaler himself follows. Meetings move more quickly, several faculty and staff noted.
"This is a guy who listens, but he doesn't spend a half hour on a point," said Dr. Russell Luepker, a faculty member in the U's School of Public Health. "With his last sentence, you know where he stands on an issue."
That pace "has caused some angst among people who like longer, broader discussions," Luepker said, while many others appreciate it.
But Kaler's been deliberative when it comes to the Academic Health Center, the amalgam of six schools, including the Medical School, formed in 1970. That $1.2 billion enterprise was the subject of an internal report completed in November. Most of the 83 pages of comments on the report found it to be lacking.
"I have heard repeatedly ... that because the report was produced internally principally by 'insiders' with potentially strong interest in maintaining the status quo, an outside peer-review team would be necessary to give the report credibility," wrote Prof. John Finnegan, dean of the School of Public Health.
Kaler listened. In December, he announced the prospect of an external review. But last week, he stopped short of committing to one.
"This is a case where rapid decisions have not been made, but rightly so," said Prof. Christopher Cramer, chair of the U's Faculty Consultative Committee. "The faculty perceive this as maybe the most critical issue facing the university."
Up next: the Capitol
Between such announcements, Kaler has been busy with business. He spoke at Gov. Dayton's jobs summit, the Minnesota Manufacturers' Summit and the Minnesota High Tech Association. He stopped by the offices of 3M, Boston Scientific and General Mills.
Jeff Marian, president of the Rotary Club of Burnsville, was surprised to get a call from the U asking if his group might be interested in hearing from the new U president.
They were. Talking to small business owners after Kaler's speech, "I heard nothing but favorable impressions," Marian said.
Kaler's speeches to business crowds focus on increasing industry-sponsored research and making the U's operations more efficient. But he also addresses the cost of college and the work that's needed to shrink the achievement gap. Then he solicits their help.
"I think business leaders understand the value of what we do, both in terms of research and education," Kaler said in an interview. "I would like more support from that community at the Capitol, and I've been out asking for it."
During the coming legislative session, which starts later this month, the U will lobby for $169.5 million in state funding toward its $209.2 million capital request.
That request's first test came within the U's own Board of Regents. During last year's session, the Legislature elected two former Republican legislators to the 12-member group.
At a meeting this fall, Regent Steve Sviggum, former Speaker of the House, called the size of the U's request "reasonably prudent." Brod called it "a practical approach." It earned the board's unanimous support.
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168