New U president Eric Kaler spent part of his first day with members of the U marching band: Naomi Amano, left, Laura Farvour and Emily Bischoff.

Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

After the press event on Tuesday, Kaler met with a dozen University of Minnesota students for lunch and conversation on Northrop Mall. The group discussed changes they’d like to see at the U, with the students, many of them student leaders, offering their suggestions.

Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

Kaler devoted part of the first hour of his first full week as U president outside of Morrill Hall getting to know the Minnesota mascot, Goldy the Gopher, during a press event.

Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

Kaler started at 6 a.m. Tuesday with live television interviews about his plans for the university, specifically in light of the government shutdown.

Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

U prez tackles Week 1

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS
  • Star Tribune
  • July 5, 2011 - 10:13 PM

It was just after 6 a.m., Goldy Gopher was yawning and Eric Kaler was on his first cup of coffee. But already, on the first busy day of what promises to be a packed presidency, the University of Minnesota's new leader was handling tough questions. Live on TV.

"How does the state shutdown affect you, and at what point do you guys start panicking?" "Your salary: In light of the increases in tuition and layoffs, is that the message you want to send?" "Two schools here ... are considering privatizing. Talk about why and how far along those plans are."

Ten minutes later, a marching band quintet performed the rouser, Kaler accepted a Goldy bobblehead and the group posed for pictures.

Switches from policy to ceremony and back again will define Kaler's life as the president of the $3.7 billion, five-campus university system. So it was only fitting that his first full week of work began Tuesday with a compressed version of that new life.

At a staff reception in Morrill Hall, discussion of graduation rates turned to chitchat about parades. At lunch with a carefully selected set of students, talk of the Mall of America moved to ideas on improving graduate education.

Kaler, 54, addressed the policy questions with the brief, matter-of-fact manner that hints at his decades as a chemical engineer and distinguishes him from his predecessor, Robert Bruininks, whose lengthy responses revealed an educational psychologist. But throughout the day, Kaler's wit and ease surfaced, as well.

Upon receiving the bobblehead, the U alumnus grabbed Goldy for a hug: "Come here, big guy."

Making Morrill Hall home

When the TV crews and marching band left, Kaler and his chief of staff, Amy Phenix, climbed the muggy stairwell to Kaler's office in Morrill Hall.

A few days ago, his table had been covered by dozens of ceramic, stained glass and crystal chickens from his nearly two decades at the University of Delaware, where the mascot is the fighting blue hen. By Tuesday, all but a handful of hens had disappeared. One of them sat by a lone seawolf, from Kaler's time as provost at Stony Brook University in New York. Kaler placed his new Goldy on the windowsill beside them. He joked with staff.

"That was a lot of rouser for 6:30 in the morning."

"We need a volunteer in charge of keeping plants alive."

"Hey! I have 33 unscheduled minutes. We should have brought some playing cards."

Kaler's bookshelves display volumes that address science, governance, research. Among them: "Faculty Diversity," "The Joy of Science" and "Methods of Theoretical Physics," parts one and two.

An entire shelf is dedicated, chronologically, to the theses of the 37 master's and Ph.D. students he has advised. With little hesitation, he lists what they're up to now. "This guy is one of the best," he says of a thick, blue volume. "He is just finishing his post-doc at MIT." Many hold professorships now. Several work at Procter & Gamble. One pair ended up married, with "terrific, beautiful kids." One passed away a few years ago, he said, his voice softening.

"They're like my children," Kaler said. "I'm very proud of all of them."

The first book on that shelf is Kaler's own -- the Ph.D. thesis he completed at the University of Minnesota in 1982. The abstract says the work includes studies of "microemulsions, vesicles and mixed micelles formed by ionic surfactants or surfactant mixtures."

He dedicated the thesis to his wife, Karen, and his parents.

An inside, outside voice

Just before noon, a group of students got their instructions from U communications staff for the casual lunch and conversation they were about to have with the new president of their university. If it's possible to be casual with four cameras trained on you.

Kaler joked about the fuss. "I feel like I'm at a wedding," he told one student. "People photographing me, music playing."

The dozen students -- many of them student leaders -- filled a couple of tables on Northrop Mall. Over brats and potato chips, the group talked about dogs, having children and using athletics to bring people to campus.

When Kaler asked them for changes they'd like to see, Mandy Stahre did not hesitate.

The Ph.D. candidate in epidemiology listed the policy changes that would make it easier for graduate students to graduate.

Afterward, Stahre said she liked Kaler's style: professorial, almost like an older, wiser grad student.

"I think he gets it because he's been internal here," she said. "But then, he's also been outside and in other university systems to see what works and what doesn't work."

She turned toward where Kaler had been just a moment ago. But he was already on to his next appointment.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

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