Speeches and Writing

One month in — listening and learning

Email to all University faculty and staff
July 31, 2011

Dear Colleagues,
For a normally quiet summer month, this was for me a very busy July. I spent it moving in, settling in, and starting to meet many good friends--and a few critics--of this great University.
There was good news: During the special session the governor proposed, and the legislature passed, a bonding bill (which had not advanced during the regular session) that included $88.8 million for the University. The highlight is $51.3 million for a critical new Physics and Nanotechnology building on the Twin Cities campus. There were disappointments, too, about projects overlooked, which we plan to revisit.
There was also painful news: We suffered a budget cut of more than $90 million over the next two years. In the end, however, the reduction was not quite as bad as expected; $25 million (recurring, beginning in FY 2012) was restored during the special legislative session. 
Though it will need Board of Regents approval, it is my hope we can use these restored funds strategically to reduce the burden of tuition and fee increases on students, invest in our people and support academic initiatives. Still, a reduction of nearly 8 percent of our state funding will affect our students, faculty, staff, and operations.
Little consolation though it may be, the results of the legislative session could have been worse. I look forward to building a strong working relationship with the governor and legislative leaders over the next few months and into the next legislative session.
I've spent these first few weeks gathering the information I will need to help us make tough choices, and what I hope will be inspirational investments.
I have met with the Regents, the University's senior leadership systemwide, the Faculty Consultative Committee and many faculty, staff, and students, and I'm looking forward to visiting each campus over the next few months. I've talked with the Minnesota Business Partnership and the Itasca Group, and I will join Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Chancellor Steven Rosenstone at a Minnesota State Chamber of Commerce board meeting this month. I've spoken with board members and volunteers of our alumni association and foundations and met some of our most generous donors.
I've gathered wisdom from our state's most thoughtful statespeople, including a former vice president and former governors. I've conversed with mayors, city council members, and U.S. Senate and House members. I've chatted with alumni, parents, and citizens at a host of public events, such as parades and the U2 concert on campus. This week I will travel to southwest Minnesota, with stops at the Southwest Research and Outreach Center and Farmfest, the agricultural community's largest annual gathering.
What I'm learning is that people truly want the U to be exceptional. They honestly believe we contribute to the economic and cultural vitality of the state. There is genuine affection and grass roots support for what we teach in our classrooms, discover in our laboratories, cure in our clinics, and perform on our athletic fields and our stages.
But, frankly, I've also heard from far too many people who think that further budget reductions won't erode our quality. Too many people perceive us as aloof and arrogant, slow and unresponsive. I've heard from people both within and outside of the University that we need to have more of a sense of urgency and efficiency in what we do.
I know I would like to see us pick up the pace as we strive to achieve a new level of excellence. At the same time, we need to better and relentlessly tell our story and deliver our message about the enormous, positive impact the University has on our people, our economy and our quality of life.
I look forward to meeting you as August unfolds and as our campuses come alive with hope and energy, and with the good work that you all do.

Eric W. Kaler