Judge the U on what it does going forward

  • Article by: ERIC W. KALER
  • Updated: March 18, 2012 - 6:53 PM

Some recent reports have been troubling, but consider them in context.

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University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler

Photo: Leah Millis, Star Tribune file

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As the leader of the University of Minnesota, I welcome a close look at how we do things. We are the state's university, and we need the public's confidence. I know we must earn it everyday.

Recent Star Tribune coverage has focused on the way the U has conducted business. I take full responsibility for all that happens here.

But where I can have impact isn't by looking in the rearview mirror. My most important role is to chart the road ahead.

I have committed to doing things differently. I am reviewing the effectiveness of programs, policies and practices, and I will make every decision with a single focus in mind: what is best for our students.

I need all Minnesotans to join me in supporting state investments in our state's only land-grant, public research university. But I know that to gain your support, you must have confidence in the U and in my decisions.

Not everyone will agree with every decision. But I want you to know that all of my decisions rest on three guiding principles:

1. Put students first. Create value for them and their families by reducing administrative costs and investing in academic excellence.

2. Advance research and innovation globally, while solving the state's most vexing problems.

3. Partner across industries to create jobs and advance prosperity across our state.

Take my decision to seek a new athletic director, but also to retain Joel Maturi for another year, primarily as a fundraiser. I anticipated that this would be controversial, and it was.

Consistent with my commitment to transparency, I didn't hide from this controversy. I was clear about my intentions and rationale, and open about Joel's privately funded compensation and the results we expect from him.

Or look at my first capital request to the Legislature. Sensitive to the state's budget challenges, our request is modest, reflecting my commitment to stewardship. It ensures that our infrastructure is upgraded and energy-efficient, thus cutting costs long-term.

Among the decisions I have made that put students first was one last summer to use additional state funding to reduce this fall's planned tuition increase from 5 percent to 3.5 percent. That will be the lowest tuition increase this century.

Or examine my budget outline for 2013. It improves education, reduces costs and positions the university for global excellence.

I am investing $21 million to support innovative academic programs and new faculty. It will be competitively awarded. I have budgeted a 2.5 percent compensation increase for faculty and staff.

Our terrific group of employees, like many in the state, have sacrificed through three years of pay freezes, furloughs, layoffs and increased health care costs.

To be more effective and efficient, I have proposed a year-round academic calendar to help students graduate earlier and make better and higher use of our classrooms and labs; I have asked our deans to evaluate 265 centers and institutes, and we are finding cost savings by reducing bureaucracy and improving work processes across our organization.

As I promised when I took office in July, I am holding the line on administrative costs. For the fiscal year 2013, the increase in administration costs at the university is going to be zero.

Leading a culture change at this or any university takes time. But I am determined to move us from an entrenched default mode of "no, we can't" to one of "yes, we can do things differently."

The recent reports are troubling to me, but it is critical to place them in context. This university has a $3.7 billion annual operating budget. More than 69,000 students are educated on our five campuses and earn more than 14,000 degrees every year.

We have 500,000 alumni around the world. In the past two years, our faculty and researchers have attracted $1.5 billion to the state in research grants. For every dollar the state invests in the university, we generate $13.20 in economic activity statewide, a return on investment of more than 13 to 1.

I expect and welcome close scrutiny of the decisions my team and I make to move the University of Minnesota forward.

I expect to be judged on what I do and, more important, on whether or not my decisions steer a path to a stronger future for the university, for the state we serve and for the state's future leaders, our students.

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Eric W. Kaler is president of the University of Minnesota.

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