Kaler grapples with surprise tests at U

Already, Eric Kaler admits, this was shaping up to be one of his toughest years ever as president of the University of Minnesota.

There were clashes with the state Legislature over rising tuition. Scathing reports and lingering questions about the U's handling of a patient who killed himself more than a decade earlier. Students occupying his office to protest racial and ethnic discrimination.

Then this summer, a sex-harassment scandal erupted that forced Kaler to send his athletic director, Norwood Teague, packing and bring in teams of investigators. The fallout from the Teague case has dominated the headlines as Kaler begins his fifth year as president and students and staff prepare for opening day of classes Tuesday.

Some of the outrage has been aimed at Kaler himself, with critics questioning everything from his judgment to his choice of words.

To some extent, that simply comes with leading a university with a $3.6 billion annual budget and 65,000 students. "You can't be a leader of an institution like this, a great academic institution, without having courage of your convictions," he said. "Because you're going to get second-guessed in this line of work."

Kaler and his allies had hoped that the furor would have died down by now, a month after Teague resigned and apologized for his "offensive behavior" at the annual retreat for senior leaders in July. But a series of new revelations has only raised questions about how deep the problems in the Athletic Department may run.

A scientist by training and temperament, Kaler has vowed to find out. The week after Teague's resignation, Kaler agreed to hire an outside legal team to conduct a sweeping review of the Athletic Department. He promises to make the findings public "to the greatest degree we can."

"We don't have anything to hide," he said in an interview. "I don't think there's a culture that would support the kind of thing that Teague did. But … [if] there's things there that I should know about, I want to know. And then I want to fix them."

It's those instincts, says a chorus of supporters, that have helped Kaler thrive in his high-profile job, even in an exceptionally rocky year.

"He has an analytical mind, he's got a caring heart, and I think he has an infinite capacity for work," said Clyde Allen, who was chair of the board of regents when Kaler was hired. "I'm more convinced than ever that he's the right person for the job."

'A good experience?'

When the stress starts to get to him, Kaler seeks out students. "He always asks, 'Are you having a good experience?' " says his wife, Karen Kaler. "That's how he keeps going."

The past few weeks, he's been meeting lots of students — at dorms, at pep rallies, at the State Fair. At the U's Driven to Discover booth, Kaler and his wife paused to chat with a graduate student in a maroon-and-gold T-shirt. "So what are you studying?" Kaler asked. "Are you having a good experience at the U?"

"Yeah," she said. "I love it."

James Zdrazil, who graduated from the U in mechanical engineering in 1954, stopped Kaler moments later. "I just wanted to say I really had a great education," said Zdrazil, 86, who lives in St. Louis Park. Kaler grinned. "We're trying to do that still," he said.

But even at the fair, they couldn't quite shake the Teague effect. In the swine barn, a man in the crowd yelled to Kaler: "Hey, you looking for a new athletic director? I could do it!"

The whole ordeal, Karen Kaler says candidly, has taken its toll. "We're all still in shock."

Kaler said he was at the leadership retreat, at Breezy Point Resort, on July 15, but left the dinner early and didn't see anything untoward. The next day, he learned that two female members of his staff, Erin Dady and Ann Aronson, complained that Teague had made unwanted sexual advances, groping and pinching them, and in one case, sent crude text messages.

The news "was devastating to him," Karen Kaler said of her husband. "It really hit hard."

When he announced Teague's resignation publicly, on Aug. 7, Kaler read a long statement condemning Teague's behavior.

But the only thing anyone remembers, complains his wife, is an answer he gave off the cuff: "I view this as the action of one man who was overserved [alcohol] and a series of bad events happened." Kaler later apologized, saying he never meant to imply that alcohol was an excuse.

"He said one wrong word," said his wife, and everyone jumped on it. "They only talked about the one slip of the tongue. That does drive him crazy."

Ex-regent: 'We struck gold'

When Kaler became president in 2011, he called it his "dream job." He's one of the few presidents in University of Minnesota history who actually graduated from the U — in his case, with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering in 1982. Before he took the job, he was provost of Stony Brook University in New York, a much smaller school, and this would be his first time leading a university.

As far as the regents were concerned, "we struck gold," said Allen.

One of Kaler's first big initiatives was to push for a tuition freeze. He managed to persuade the state Legislature to pay for it in 2013 and 2014 — the first two-year freeze since 1969 — reversing several years of budget cuts. He also impressed lawmakers with his candor when the Wall Street Journal came out with a story citing the U as the poster child for administrative bloat. Kaler insisted that the newspaper got it wrong, but promptly commissioned a study and reported the results, as promised, to the Legislature.

"He's perceived as somebody who has earned a lot of respect," said Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, who heads the Senate Higher Education Committee. "How he handles problems … is impressive."

Charlie Weaver, president of the Minnesota Business Partnership, agrees. He said he's gotten to know Kaler working on community projects like Generation Next, which is trying to narrow the achievement gap in Minnesota schools.

"So many people in academics can come across as arrogant or self-important, but Kaler doesn't suffer from that," he said. "He's not afraid, as he's shown with the Teague situation, to acknowledge it when he makes a mistake. And when he does things right, he's not the first guy out there taking credit."

The U's regents, meanwhile, have given Kaler glowing reviews from the start. "Exceptional" says his first performance review, in 2012, which raved about his success as a fundraiser, among other things. "Stellar" said his second. "Exceptional" read the third. His latest, in June, called him "outstanding." For two years, Kaler refused a raise (his salary was $610,000), directing the extra funds to scholarships instead. Last year, the board extended his contract through 2020, this time with a raise.

"We're a better university today than we've ever been," said Dean Johnson, chair of the Board of Regents. By every measure, he said, Kaler has elevated the university: ACT scores of incoming freshmen: "Never been better." Athletes' grade-point averages: "Never been better." Research dollars: "Never been higher." And last year, the U foundation broke its record for donations, raising more than $350 million. "These are all … marks of great leadership," Johnson said.

Critics fault leadership

Not everyone, of course, agrees. One of Kaler's most persistent critics is former Gov. Arne Carlson. He publicly called for Kaler's resignation in April, after the Legislative Auditor rebuked the U for decade-long lapses in safeguarding patients in psychiatric studies. The report was prompted by lingering concerns over the death of Dan Markingson, who killed himself during a 2004 drug study.

"This is our university, and we have the right to expect the highest level of integrity in our governance, and frankly, it's not present," Carlson said. He argues that Kaler ignored warnings about the psychiatry department for years, and that the Teague case is another symptom of a failure of leadership. "Nobody's accountable," he said. "It's always 'blame it on somebody else.' "

Eva von Dassow, a longtime faculty leader and associate professor of Near Eastern history and languages, calls herself an admirer of Kaler's. At the same time, she said, many colleagues believe he was too slow to respond to the warnings about the psychiatry department.

"He could be faulted for not listening to begin with," von Dassow said of Kaler. "However, once he understood what the problems were, he was truly dismayed," she said, "and truly committed to correcting those problems."

Johnson, though, says it's simply misguided to lay the blame on Kaler for either Teague's behavior or the psychiatry department's troubles, which predated his arrival.

"As captain of the ship, you only know what you're told," he said. "In both cases, Eric Kaler, with his hand on the Bible, could say, 'I didn't know.' But as soon as he found out, he took decisive action. I give high marks to leaders who do that."

Johnson, for one, has no worries about Kaler's ability to ride out the storm. "It's easy to beat up the U. It's a big ship," he said. "But it's a great place. It does great things for our citizens. And Kaler's leading the ship."