University of Minnesota
July 1, 2011
Photo: Patrick O'Leary
The U’s new president brings frank conversation and sharp focus
By Bill Magdalene
Eric Kaler is excited—“about as excited as a person can be,” he says. Although this is an enormously difficult time for public higher education leaders across the country, the sixteenth president of the University of Minnesota is eager to take on the challenge.
Kaler sees public universities as “tremendous vehicles for the progress of civilization,” and he believes that vision is broadly shared. His working hypothesis, however, is that right now, under extreme financial pressures, for the university to evolve requires a sharp tactical focus.
“It requires people to dedicate themselves to thinking creatively about how to do their jobs in the most efficient way,” he says. “And to thinking critically about what we really need to do to carry out the university’s mission in the arenas of teaching, research, health care and service.”
He knows the road ahead will be hard. “I’m not so stupid as to think this will be without some pain,” he says. “But you get one chance to live. This is a great university. It is part of me and my history. I’m ready to go do it.”
What Kaler admires
"There are two qualities I most admire in a person, and they are tied. One is honesty. The second is a sense of humor."
Advancing the student experience
Kaler says a top priority is to “make sure not only that U of M students get the range and kinds of classes they need to progress toward their chosen degree in a timely and effective way, but also that they get the opportunity to go beyond that central focus and have a good, broad university experience.”
To do that, he says, “drives back to having the resources, the faculty and the teaching assistants that you need, as well as the facilities, the advising and the out-of-classroom activities.”
Kaler on baseball
"I love the numbers. I love that you can make historical comparisons, reasonably corrected. And I love the particular way that baseball is a team sport. In many sports, when the game is on the line you can call time-out and make sure the ball is in your best player’s hands. In baseball, it’s the fourteenth inning, you have nobody left on the bench, and your third string catcher, who’s hitting a buck eighty, comes up with the game on the line. That’s cool."
Finding his path
Kaler found his own academic path early. He was, in his words, “an inquisitive child.” He loved taking things apart, including his father’s single-lens reflex camera when Eric was nine or ten. “I had some parts left over when I put it back together,” he recalls.
Another time he took apart “one of those spring loaded key chains you wear on your belt. When you take the cover off it looks pretty innocent. But the spring is really tightly wound! Fortunately it put a hole in the wall rather than taking out an eye.”
While developing his mechanical interests, he was lucky enough to learn chemistry from “a very good teacher” in high school. The combination led him to become a chemical engineer.
Conversation and coffee
Kaler’s preferred approach to making tough decisions is to share a cup of coffee around the table with people who are open to a conversation. “I come from a rough and tumble research background where ideas get thrown out and discussed in a vigorous way,” he says. “I’m used to a frank search for the right answer.”
How many chemical engineers does it take to change a lightbulb?
Kaler: "One, as long as she doesn't have something more interesting to do."
Having a conversation gets harder as the group gets bigger. “We have 61,000 students and tens of thousands of employees,” he says. “I’m not going to get to have a cup of coffee with each person. But over the next couple of years, I hope to get in front of every one of them.”
Much of Kaler’s time during his first hundred days and beyond will be spent conversing with students, faculty and staff, and the university’s external partners. “I hope to get my optimistic view for the university, for public higher education, out into the community,” he says. “Many people in Minnesota know much more about the university than I do right now. So the balance will favor listening.”