A budget and tuition discussion on the University of Minnesota’s governing board had dragged on in 2017, and at the grand boardroom table, President Eric Kaler muttered softly, “Time to vote.” Then, as more regents took the floor, he signaled he was ready to move on: He picked up his phone and started a game of solitaire.

Kaler wraps up his eight years at the helm of Minnesota’s flagship research institution Sunday with his legacy the fodder of intense debate. His supporters say his quick intellect and laser focus on measurable results sometimes made him impatient with the ponderous pace of academia — and served him well. He shattered records: graduation rates, research grants, fundraising hauls. Students, faculty and donors say he often revealed a warm, self-deprecating side at odds with his prepared remarks-reading boardroom persona.

But Kaler’s critics say they had hoped to see more impatience with campus status quo — more innovation, resolve to cut costs and unified vision for the five-campus U system serving 62,000 students. Some regents say that’s in part why a majority of the board last year rallied around a plan to have Kaler step down this summer and spend the final year on his contract fundraising at his full $625,250 presidential salary. The U started auditioning executive search firms months before Kaler announced last July he would step down, board staff e-mails show.

Kaler, 62, insists he made the decision without pressure from the board.

“If you look objectively at what I have accomplished, it’s pretty remarkable,” he said. “A majority on the board accepted my decision to leave early.”

Glowing reviews

In the fall of 2017, David McMillan and Ken Powell, who had recently come to lead the U board, broached the topic of what was next for Kaler. Less than two years before his contract was to expire in 2020, there were three options: He could get a contract extension, finish out his term or leave early.

The board included members who had remained staunch Kaler supporters through a string of bruising athletics scandals — regents who had hired the U graduate in 2010 when he was provost at New York’s Stony Brook University. They wanted to see him finish his contract, perhaps even stick around longer.

“Because of Eric Kaler, the University of Minnesota is a much better academic and research institution than it’s ever been,” said now former regent Dean Johnson.

Kaler oversaw a 17 percent increase in the U’s on-time graduation rate, to 71%, the second-highest in the Big Ten. Though glaring racial disparities remain, the U has made marked headway: The Twin Cities six-year graduation gap between black students and white peers has shrunk from more than 30% to less than 10% under Kaler.

An accomplished chemical engineer who holds 10 patents, Kaler was a champion of research, presiding over a rise in grants poised to cross the $1 billion mark next year. An initiative to make it easier for companies to team up with U researchers drew White House acclaim and more than $100 million in sponsored research funding.

“He made the university a less intimidating and confusing place for companies that want to partner with it,” said Charlie Weaver of the Minnesota Business Partnership.

A recent Moody’s Investment Service bond credit rating report reads like a glowing review of Kaler’s handling of U finances. It points to strong student demand, a key agreement Kaler renegotiated with Fairview Health that will pour millions more into the U’s medical school, and blockbuster fundraising.

Longtime boosters John and Nancy Lindahl, who lead Kaler’s $4 billion “Driven” campaign, have crisscrossed the country with him to seek contributions from alumni and others.

They describe him as fundraiser extraordinaire — funny, well-prepared but also ready to put down the script and undaunted by tough questions.

Kaler last fall sneaked out during a packed day of meetings to appear in a student government video on mental health care during finals week, says Simran Mishra, the out­going president. His initiative to counter sexual misconduct is a “really powerful legacy,” she added.

Faculty leader Amy Pittenger, at first intimidated by Kaler’s formal persona, says he quickly put her at ease with a mix of bluntness, self-deprecation and openness to pushback.

But Kaler over the years also cultivated a vocal stable of critics — and several of them in recent years have joined his governing board.

Critics and scandals

Regents such as Michael Hsu — proponents of cutting costs and aggressively holding the line on tuition — had clamored for new leadership at the U for several years. In early 2018, they used one-on-one meetings with McMillan as part of Kaler’s midyear evaluation to renew a call for change.

Hsu joined the board in 2015 amid budget planning. He approached Kaler about freezing undergraduate tuition instead of the 1.5% hike pitched by the president, who prides himself on reining in sharp tuition increases.

“I already have seven votes on the board,” Hsu said Kaler, who does not recall the exchange, told him. “You go find seven votes and $4 million.”

Hsu said the blunt response took him aback. But a larger issue for him is that for more than a decade now, the university has operated without a systemwide strategic plan — without a clear sense of its longer-term direction or priorities. Hsu said the U has been slow to innovate, falling behind in areas such as online learning.

Kaler’s initiative to cut $90 million from the U’s administrative tab over six years hasn’t converted critics such as former Gov. Arne Carlson who say the amount is too puny given the university’s $4 billion budget. Carlson, too, thinks the U needs a wholesale reset.

“Too much of what we do is about today and yesterday,” he said. “The focus should be on tomorrow.”

Kaler has said his biggest regret is failing to heed calls to re-examine sooner the 2004 suicide of Dan Markingson during a U psychiatric research study and the university’s practices to protect human research participants. But Carl Elliott, a bioethics professor, says even after a U investigation and state legislative auditor inquiry vindicated critics, Kaler never engaged them in efforts to bring about change.

Meanwhile, athletic scandals — including former athletic director Norwood Teague’s 2015 departure after he sexually harassed employees and 2016 rape allegations against Gopher football players — tested the Kaler presidency. While some say Kaler showed resolve in handling these crises, others argue he should have tackled the U’s athletics culture before back-to-back scandals forced his hand.

Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, estimates the Gophers scandal cost the U at least $10 million in state funding in 2017. But he says more recently, mixed reception to Kaler’s push for more state support had more to do with competing priorities for limited dollars than with his effectiveness.

Jennifer Schultz, a DFL representative who teaches on the Duluth campus, says Kaler recently stepped up outreach and collaboration, including a plan to steer students rejected by the Twin Cities flagship to other campuses — efforts that resonated with lawmakers. But she said the Duluth campus remains strapped for resources.

A final contract

Some regents say by spring of last year, most on the board agreed a change in presidency should happen earlier. On the sidelines of a San Francisco conference that April, U board staff members met with AGB Search employees about “an upcoming executive search,” e-mails show. Staff went on to reach out to other search firms — what McMillan described as a proactive bid to tee up outside help in case Kaler decided to step down.

McMillan and Powell, both former corporate executives, say they were drawn to an early exit not because they were unhappy with Kaler — they both rave about his performance — but because both believe in a business world “taper model” of keeping top leaders around while successors ease in.

By July, McMillan says, the broad outlines of Kaler’s final contract — with a year as president emeritus at his full salary, partly covered by the U’s foundation — had been worked out. But McMillan stresses the board would not have forced Kaler to leave. The contract — which also preserves a $325,000 retirement contribution Kaler will receive in June 2020 — was not meant to “sweeten” the deal.

Johnson and Rick Beeson, another Kaler ally, voted against that contract in August. Johnson says his was a rebuke not of the contract terms but of his colleagues, who he said pressured a reluctant Kaler to resign.

Kaler disputes that. He says the U can use a new strategic plan, but to start work on that in the final year of his presidency would have been “silly.”

After his year of fundraising and a six-month paid sabbatical, Kaler will join the U’s faculty in January 2021, at a salary of $312,625. He says he doesn’t rule out another presidency, but he and his wife Karen — a “rock star” partner in his fundraising efforts — would be reluctant to leave Minnesota.

“It’s really been a wonderful journey in a lot of ways,” he said.