University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler called executive compensation packages signed by his predecessor "very generous" and vowed Tuesday to be more stringent when top officials leave his administration.

"I regret that those past decisions may have hurt the public's trust in our stewardship of this great university," Kaler told a House higher education committee on Tuesday. "My approach will be different."

Legislators requested the hearing after the Star Tribune disclosed that former University President Robert Bruininks signed a series of compensation agreements worth more than $2.8 million that routinely gave leaves to administrators at their executive salaries, even when departing administrators had no intention of returning to the U. In negotiating the deals, Bruininks regularly departed from university policy, often waiving a requirement that executives repay their stipends if they did not return to the faculty.

Since he became president last summer, Kaler has emphasized his goal of holding down administrative costs and making the $3.7 billion, five-campus system more efficient. He attempted to set himself apart from Bruininks both in testimony on Tuesday and in an internal memo to campus leaders.

The memo from Jason Rohloff, Kaler's special assistant for government relations, said the president would testify that he "wasn't here when the decisions were made" and "will stress that, for him, the bar will be set high for any such exceptions."

At the hearing, Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, called the packages "appalling" and "more generous than the private sector."

Norton said that she has agonized over making cuts in state funding to the University of Minnesota. Given that, "to see where that money is going is, frankly, shocking."

Kaler assured legislators that he will make changes and closely follow the policy that outlines administrative leaves. That policy states that "salary and benefits are typically paid at the level of the assumed, or resumed, faculty or professional position rather than at the administrative salary level."

Bruininks arranged for most of his administrators to receive their executive pay while on leave, university documents show.

Also, "the policy is clear that if someone does not return to the university after their sabbatical, the transitional salary must be repaid," Kaler said Tuesday. "I intend to stick to those guidelines."

Kaler noted that his own contract includes a year-long leave at his presidential salary -- now $610,000 a year -- before he steps down to join the faculty. "But if for some reason I do not return to the university, I will pay that money back," he said.

Because "personnel matters can be complex," Kaler did not close the door on exceptions. But he said that "substantial deviations from policy" would be reviewed by the U's Board of Regents. "I will be proposing a policy change at the university to accommodate that."

Kaler defends Maturi's job

Kaler drew a distinction between the packages signed by Bruininks and his own agreement with outgoing athletic director Joel Maturi, who, as special assistant to the president, will receive $468,000 in pay and benefits to teach sports management courses and to raise funds for the athletics department.

"Let me be clear," Kaler said. "He will earn every cent, I expect, many times over in fundraising."

After the hearing, Kaler noted that Bruininks was permitted to use discretion in negotiating the leaves, which are designed to give administrators time to reload for a return to faculty positions. "These are people with decades of service to the university," he said. "They passed many opportunities to have sabbaticals during that time."

Kaler also defended U administrators' salaries, generally, as necessary "in a highly competitive global market for top talent."

Scott Marshall, an alumnus who currently works at the U in disability services, said Kaler will be a better steward of the payroll than Bruininks was if he sticks to his promise of attracting talent to the university without duplicating executive compensation practices in the corporate world.

"I want to give Kaler the benefit of the doubt," Marshall said.

During a question-and-answer session after his first State of the University address last week, Kaler was questioned about the packages. Kaler urged students and staff not to judge him against administrative payouts signed before his time.

"I'm a new president," Kaler said. "You watch what I do before you judge how I do it." • 612-673-7168 • 612-673-4213