New U President Eric Kaler: Q & A

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS and DENNIS BRACKIN , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: August 24, 2011 - 6:42 AM

The University of Minnesota's new president offers his views on athletics, finances, Joel Maturi, student-athletes and other issues.

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University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler is known as being pro-athletics. Why? “I’m a fan,” he says. “I think it’s an important part of the university.”

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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Q: What will your role be in Gophers athletics?

Kaler: I'm a big fan. I think college athletics is an important part of college life. I think it's an important part of the institution's reputation. And I think it's an important part of how people see us. So I'm excited about the range of sports teams we have. I'm excited about the successes we've had and I'm looking forward to having some more of those.

Q: When you look at college athletics, it's obviously been a tough 12 months with the scandals and negative headlines. What changes in your mind need to be done to clear up some of the off-the-field problems we're seeing.

Kaler: I think the commissioner of the SEC said it first: Whatever veneer was papered over these activities is gone. So it's really important that we look realistically at what's going on. Frankly it's the presidents and the chancellors of the universities who own this problem and that means we own the fix. We need to move aggressively forward to change the status quo. There are a variety of proposals that came out of that [NCAA] presidents meeting -- simplifying the rulebook, being realistic about what student-athletes can and can't do. I'm 100 percent behind those efforts. We're going to have to move to a situation where the rules are understandable and where we enforce them rigorously and we hold the student-athletes and boosters to high standards.

Q: Some people think paying athletes is the way to go. Are you in favor of paying athletes or maybe giving a stipend so they get a full-cost scholarship?

Kaler: I'm open to that discussion. But I will tell you, as I'm sure you know, an athlete on a full-ride scholarship has all of those expenses covered, and for students with financial need, they're eligible for Pell Grants and the maximum Pell Grant is up to $5,500. It's not clear to me that that's not enough compensation for a student-athlete to have. But again, I'm two months into this job, so I'm going to look and listen some more about what the best path there is. But I'm certainly open to the discussion.

Q: Are there any proposals that you've read or heard that jumped out at you and intrigue you?

Kaler: Not beyond the rulebook simplification. That clearly needs to get done. I think the debate about providing a stipend in addition to the scholarship is something to think about. But again for students from some economic backgrounds, they don't need that money. They're fine. I think having a need-based measure is probably a better way to do it.

Q: Some would argue that college athletics is already operating as a semi-pro model and that the next step -- getting rid of all rules -- is the way to go.

Kaler: I don't think that's actually true. I think a lot of programs function with a high degree of integrity. I think the rigorous structure that enables a high-quality college athletic program -- which means the student-athletes advance, which means the coaching staffs and the boosters are ethical and act appropriately and that has success on the field or court -- I think that's an attainable goal. I think that's a goal for the University of Minnesota. I'm not anxious to split off and go semi-pro. I would not want to do that.

Q: Presidents have different degrees of participation in the NCAA. How involved do you want to be?

Kaler: I want to be involved. As I said, I think athletics is an important part of the institutional effort. I do want to be involved in setting policy. But on the other hand, I'm not sending in plays from the sidelines. I have an athletic director and a coaching staff and their job is to run our athletic program.

Q: What is Joel Maturi's status?

Kaler: Joel is in the same situation as all of my senior managers. I'm evaluating their role, their effectiveness. As we move into the fall, I'll be making judgments about all my senior managers, including Joel.

Q: You were asked when you first got here whether Joel will finish out his contract and you said that you were taking 90 days. Basically no comment. Joel has a contract through June. Will he be here through June?

Kaler: I'm in my listening and learning and evaluating point of time. I'll make decisions about all my senior managers as we go into the fall.

Q: So you're not prepared to say yes, he will serve out the final year?

Kaler: I'm not making a comment about any of my senior managers' situation.

Q: When you say evaluating, are you talking to people outside the athletic department? Joel is a polarizing figure among fans and some former athletes. Do you talk to them too, or is it people inside the athletic department and your conversations with Joel?

Kaler: When I'm looking at any senior manager, I'm talking to people in the organization and outside the organization.

Q: Has Joel indicated whether he wants to finish his contract?

Kaler: To me? No. But he hasn't indicated that he doesn't want to finish his contract. That's sort of where I am. I'm evaluating him and we will have some conversations and we'll chart a path forward. But he is under contract through the end of June. Do I expect him to finish? I would expect him to finish it, sure. But we haven't had that discussion.

Q: Are you in favor of alcohol returning to campus sporting events.

Kaler: I think it's appropriate that we sell alcohol in the premium sections. I do not want to sell alcohol in the student sections.

Q: Is that something that could happen quickly?

Kaler: We're going to advance that conversation, absolutely, because that would put us in line with other college athletic venues around the country. It's an appropriate place for us to be and it's an appropriate way to handle the alcohol issue.

Q: The university's financial commitment toward the athletic department has gone down significantly under Joel. I think it's $1.8 million this year. Would you like the department to become self-supportive or do you still see some need to have that [financial contribution].

Kaler: We'll make budget decisions around athletics in the context of the overall university. As you know, the state's support for the university has been hammered. That requires us to look carefully at everything we do. Certainly the support for the athletic department has decreased. Support for a lot of our academic programs has decreased. On the academic side, people are needing to be more entrepreneurial, needing to be more creative on how they manage their budgets and creative on sources of revenue. The athletics department is in exactly the same situation. I am encouraging them to be more entrepreneurial, to look at ways to reduce costs, because the state dollars are just not there. They'll have to become increasingly frugal. I can't make a prediction on which way that state aid percentages is going to go, but it's hard to imagine it's going to go up.

Q: Your budget at Stony Brook was about $17 million. This one is $78 million. How different does that make your oversight of athletics?

Kaler: That is, whatever it is, four times bigger. This is a bigger university than Stony Brook was in lots of dimensions. But it's not qualitatively different. We're a Division I school, we had a focus on integrity and a focus on success on the field. Those are exactly the same things that we have here. The fact that we have more sports and a bigger budget doesn't really change much in terms of fundamentally how you do it.

Q: Stony Brook was a different financial model. You didn't have the revenue coming in from TV and gate receipts. A lot of student fees went into athletics. Having come from that model are you more open to considering things like student fees for athletics?

Kaler: I think moving to a student fee structure is a tough lift. We're asking our students right now to pay substantial tuition. Room and board costs, book costs are high. The cost of attendance is a big number and I'd have a hard time of putting an additional burden on the student body in terms of an athletic fee or really any non-academic fee whatsoever, so that's not a direction I'd like to go. ... Stony Brook's tuition is remarkably low. Stony Brook's tuition is $5,000 a year. That puts the fee structure in an entirely different part of the conversation.

Q: When you look at the budget and the struggles, Joel has been adamant about having a well-rounded, 25-sport program, and the non-revenue sports mean as much as the big sports. Going forward, do you still see this university being able to support 25 sports the way that it has?

Kaler: As we go forward, we're going to look with a microscope at everything we do. One thing we will look at is the scope of the athletic department. I expect to look carefully at what those revenue models look like for the full spectrum of sports.

Q: Does that mean you're open to cutting sports? Is that an option that's on the table?

Kaler: I think it's going to be important for the athletics department, just like every other part of the university, to critically evaluate what they're doing with the funds that they have available. If they can support 25 sports in the budget parameters that they have, that's terrific. But if they can't, then we'll need to go in a different direction, which means we need to have fewer sports.

Q: One of the criticisms of Joel from the fan base is that he's so supportive of the broad-based athletic program. There's a group of diehard fans, even former Gophers football players, who say Joel should take more money and put it into football and basketball and make those high-profile winning programs, and whatever that does to the non-revenues, let the chips fall where they may. What's your view?

Kaler: That [sentiment] is absolutely out there. I fully hear that point of view. As we go forward and look at the department I think that's a conversation internally that the department needs to have. Do they need more money in the revenue sports to be competitive? Maybe, maybe not. Again, if you look at where we are in our football budget, it's a big number. I think that's a number that's probably big enough to win in the Big Ten.

Q: When you look at football, men's basketball and men's hockey, the top three sports are having a tough time right now. Do you have a sense of what needs to be done to get those programs going in the right direction? Is it more money or something else?

Kaler: I think the football direction is right now a very good one. I haven't met a person in Minnesota who doesn't think Jerry Kill is a terrific addition to Minnesota football. I'm very optimistic that he's going to have success on the field and I'm optimistic he's going to move the academic progress rate to where it needs to be. Right now, he's in a great honeymoon period, as am I. Basketball and hockey have established coaches. Challenging times lately but I know they're optimistic about the future for their teams.

Q: How important is to you to have winning programs in these high-profile sports?

Kaler: It's absolutely critical to me to have high performing programs. What that means is that they have to be making appropriate academic progress. They have to be following the rules and having athletic success. But to me the most important thing is the integrity of the program. I think you can win with integrity and I think we've got the structure in place to win with integrity.

Q: Minnesota has made some improvements, but it continues to lag in graduation rates in football and basketball in the Big Ten. Have you looked enough to know what changes need to be made?

Kaler: I haven't looked enough at the drivers, but I know when you have a lot of turnover in coaching staff that tends to impact graduation rates. We've had obviously some turnover in the football program. I do know that the way our athletic department is organized, in terms of academic reporting and enforcement reporting and athletic activity, is a terrific model. That's a rock-solid foundation on which to build. And I think continuity in coaching staff will drive student performance and athletic performance and graduation rates.

Q: President Bruininks talked about one of his goals was to raise the academic profile of incoming football and basketball players on the same course as the student body. What is your view on admitting high school students where their academic profile is lower?

Kaler: I think we are a source of opportunity for a variety of students. We will make exceptional admits for students with a range of different kinds of abilities if we think they can be successful at the University of Minnesota. Whether they're performance students or athletes, we'll provide a structure and enable them to succeed. What I will not tolerate is a rotating door in which we bring in students that we know will fail, exploit them athletically and then let them go. That's completely unacceptable to me.

Q: Doesn't some of that fall back on the institutional support? If you're going to take some at-risk students, you need to have the academic support in place to help them.

Kaler: If you admit a student, that student has to project to succeed academically at the university or you're doing that student an enormous disservice. Frankly, I don't think that's an ethical thing for a program to do.

Q: What is the status of the basketball practice facility and baseball stadium?

Kaler: I know those are the two projects we need. I know we're in the middle of fundraising for them. But I don't have a up-to-date number on where we are in terms of fundraising either of those projects.

Q: How important are those two projects?

Kaler: I think we want to have an athletic program that's effective and competitive in the Big Ten and I'm told those facilities are needed for our teams to be competitive. So I'm supportive of moving forward on those. Again, those are facilities that will come from fundraising and from philanthropy. We're not taking money away from our academic programs to fund those.

Q: What is your athletic background? Did you play sports as a kid?

Kaler: I ran cross country when I was in high school. Not very quickly. But that was it. Played intramural sports. But no serious athletic background.

Q: People refer to you as a university president who is "pro athletics." Where does that come from?

Kaler: I think in the interview process I was asked, 'What do you think about college athletics?' I'm a fan. I think it's an important part of the university. I'm proud of what we do and want to do it cleanly, ethically and successfully.

Q: You addressed the football team before the season and told them, if you screw up, you're going to be on the front page of the paper. Is that something where you're not going to have much tolerance for?

Kaler: I do believe in forgiveness and redemption. But we have a lot of structure in place for these student-athletes so I firmly believe they know what the rules are, and if they break those rules, they should expect there to be consequences.

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