University of Minnesota
Photo: Patrick O'Leary
Fulfilling a promise
New U of M president focuses on the future of Minnesota's students
By Bill Magdalene
In September 1978 Eric Kaler, soon to turn 22, arrived at the University of Minnesota. The son of a working class family, he'd found a path to becoming a graduate student in the world's best chemical engineering program. …
In Ted Mann Concert Hall, the morning of September 22, 2011, moments after being inaugurated as the University's 16th president, Kaler spoke of that first arrival, and of the University's excellence and the public support that gave him access to it.
Excellence and access, "those two foundational stones for the prosperity of Minnesota, have never been more at risk," he said. "That's why I am devoting this next chapter of my life to the mission of this University, and to the future of its students."
He quickly added that the challenge is bigger than one person. "I can't achieve excellence alone, not in these unusual times, not amid increasingly scarce resources, not across this vast organization," he said. "I'm asking you, students, faculty, staff, elected officials, business leaders, alumni, and citizens of Minnesota, to join me to move this university forward."
Kaler shared stories about two other, more recent, U of M students.
Ifrah Esse graduated with a degree in sociology in 2008, only 12 years after emigrating with her family from a Kenyan refugee camp. When she arrived in the United States she didn't know English. In high school she set a goal to go to the University of Minnesota. She worked full time while at the U and received grants and scholarships. Today she's a sourcing specialist for Target, working with vendors worldwide. Three of her siblings have also graduated from the U, including a brother who recently graduated from the Medical School.
"My friends," Kaler said, "we don't do any better than that. She is an example of how this state's only land-grant university fulfills its promise."
Kenny Deutz grew up on his family's farm near Marshall, Minnesota. He has wanted to be a veterinarian since kindergarten. He came to the University of Minnesota to achieve that goal. A few months ago, right after his freshman year, he was accepted into the University's accelerated veterinary degree program. He'll complete his training in seven years, instead of the standard eight.
"Across the nation, there's an acute shortage of large animal veterinarians," Kaler said. "As the only veterinary college in the state, the University of Minnesota has an obligation to help meet this shortage. It allows young people like Kenny to give back to his community, and live [his] dream."
Minnesota's research university
We should care about having a research university in our backyard, Kaler said, because the University is "home for the innovation that makes Minnesota work." He said that, while he couldn't guarantee that the next life-saving bone marrow transplant or new strain of soybeans would be developed at the U, "I can guarantee you this: If we don't … support the best young minds, we absolutely will not discover new things. Instead, we will wither as a university. We will decline as a state."
Discovery extends far beyond the laboratory, he said. "Our students get a core liberal arts education. They gain knowledge of cultures and languages, as well as the ability to think critically and communicate effectively. The ability to reason and criticize is essential to our democracy and civil society."
Changing the academic culture
Inscribed above the columns of the University's Northrop Auditorium are these words: "Founded in the faith that men are ennobled by understanding. Dedicated to the advancement of learning and the search for truth. Devoted to the instruction of youth and the welfare of the state."
Kaler called those words—early-20th-century gender bias aside—"an enduring description of the University's noble mission."
Then he told a true story about those words. The story boiled down to an inscription committee, an inscription consultant, and 12 years to draft 33 words. It got a big laugh, yet his conclusion was pointed: "I hope this story is inspiration for a culture change, a re-set that drives us to be more entrepreneurial, less risk-averse and better partners," he said. "We must reduce bureaucracy, focus on shared values, and pick up the pace."
He promised that under his presidency the University would reduce the cost of administration "every single year" and would "re-examine the academic programs we offer, the centers and institutes we support, and the methods of engagement we use."
Strengthening relationships in tough times
Kaler said the University must better define its partnership with the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. He pointed to the pivotal role that philanthropic, business, and community partnerships must play in defining the U's future excellence. He called out to alumni: "We need your energy. Please consider how you can best give back."
"Poverty in Minnesota is at an all-time high," Kaler said. "For those of us who have benefited from the generosity of others, and to whom so much is given, contributing to this university will go a long way to preserving our shared values of access and excellence." He then mentioned the establishment that same day of the Kaler Family Scholarship Fund to support four scholarships for undergraduate students each year.
A great university "must actively pursue diversity," Kaler said. "A student who, by accident or by plan, has a narrow and homogenous education will be spectacularly ill-equipped to succeed in a modern life."
He noted that by 2035 almost half the citizens in the Twin Cities metro area will be people of color, "yet Minnesota has one of the nation's largest achievement gaps between students of color and white students." He promised to partner with K-12 leaders and others to close the gap.
"We all bear responsibility," he said.