Eric Kaler calls this a “turbulent time.” As president of the University of Minnesota, he knows that everyone is worried about the cost of college. And that the U itself is under pressure to change with the times.

What might that mean for the liberal arts? For online classes? For tuition?

Kaler offered some thoughts about the challenges facing the U as it embarks on a yearlong process to develop a new strategic plan for the Twin Cities campus.

His comments have been edited.


Q. Are the liberal arts falling out of favor?

A. I think the downfall of the liberal arts that you can read about in the press is a little overwrought. The fact [is] that American higher education remains the best in the world — people still come to the U.S. to get a great education. The core of that is the liberal arts.

[Business leaders] say they need employees who communicate well, who work well with others, who understand different cultures, who can adapt to changing circumstances. All of those are what a liberal arts education gives you. So that says to me that the core of what we do is important.

Having said all of that, I do think that there’s an expectation from students and their families that when you graduate from the University of Minnesota, that you have a set of skills that enables you to be employable.


Q. How do you view the growth of online courses? Are they a threat to traditional campuses?

A. I think online will be an important part of what we do going forward. But I don’t see it, frankly, ever replacing the bricks-and-mortar institutions like the University of Minnesota.

Online education is absolutely terrific for people who are placebound. It’s terrific for people who need to fill a specific gap.

[But] the ability to learn from each other, to make new friends and to explore the intellectual world in front of them … that happens at bricks-and-mortar institutions. And I don’t think that transition is going to easily occur by somebody going down in the basement and taking online courses for four years.


Q. Do you see online courses as more of a supplement, than a replacement, for U classes?

A. I think what will emerge, almost certainly, is that large classroom lectures will become less important, less common. Students will listen to the lecture online and then come to class and interact with students and faculty. With faculty being more of a coach and a mentor, a person who answers questions rather than just dispensing wisdom.

[Teaching methods are] going to change. Bottom line is, I think bricks-and-mortar institutions are here to stay. But I think what happens in them is going to be quite a bit different.


Q. What’s the current verdict on MOOCs — massive open online courses?

A. We’re taking part in the MOOC activity. I think our largest was 14,000 students in a food and sustainability course.

The facts are … they may initially enroll tens of thousands of students; a very small fraction finish. As long as that’s free and it doesn’t cost you anything, that’s probably fine. But I can’t imagine people paying a lot of money for something they don’t finish.

As a university, I think we’re poised just right to be developing these, seeing how they impact our students, seeing how in fact they impact the brand of the university.


Q. The U froze undergraduate tuition this year, in return for an increase in state funding. What happens next year?

A. It’s a two-year freeze.


Q. And after that?

A. I think a freeze can continue if the state of Minnesota is willing to continue to fund the university appropriately. We did that this year. I’d be happy to be in a situation to continue that. [But] 2015 is too far away for me to predict.