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Meet Eric and Karen Kaler

Visitors lined up to meet Eric W. Kaler, the newly elected 16th president of the University of Minnesota, and his wife, Karen

By Adam Overland

Kaler and wife 165
Eric and Karen Kaler

November 23, 2010

It's 10:30 a.m. on Friday morning (Nov. 19) and Eric Kaler's knee is bothering him. He's just finished standing for a couple of hours during a meet-and-greet with U of M faculty, staff, and students at the McNamara Alumni Center—an event he suggested take place before he returns to Stony Brook University in Long Island.

Beginning at 8:30 a.m., a steady line of visitors streams from the McNamara atrium into the A. I. Johnson Great Room to meet Kaler, the newly elected 16th president of the University of Minnesota, and his wife, Karen, a petite woman with an endearing southern accent.

Together, right past their scheduled 10 a.m. stop time, the Kalers shake hands with and speak briefly to hundreds of people eager to meet the man who will lead the University for at least the next four years, beginning July 1, 2011, at the end of Bob Bruininks's term.

And so the Kalers are going to be a little late for our 10 a.m. conversation. Eric Kaler says he'll be unable to leave until he's met the people who are still waiting to meet him today.

A busy schedule
Since he arrived as the sole finalist to be publicly interviewed by the Board of Regents, he's been on a tight schedule. He fielded questions at a public forum on Nov. 17 with an audience of more than 600 people (online and in-person) listening closely. The following day, he was interviewed more formally by the board, the outcome of which we're all familiar with by now. Many more interviews and research went into the selection, of course, but the last week has been the most challenging.

"The process is intense, but it is really a thrill. It was fun to sort of be in the moment and have this experience. It's not something I'd want to do on a weekly basis, of course," he says. "Because it is intense."

An impressive past
Over the past week, there's been a frenzy of media coverage surrounding the new president. We know his resume: Eric W. Kaler. Provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Stony Brook University. Undergraduate degree from the California Institute of Technology in 1978. Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Minnesota in 1982. Faculty member at University of Washington and Delaware. One of the first to receive a Presidential Young Investigator Award from the National Science Foundation in 1984. Recently elected to the National Academy of Engineering. He likes surfactants and colloids, statistical mechanics, and thermodynamics. He holds 10 U.S. patents.

We've heard his views on athletics and the arts—he supports them both, even though he's a science guy by trade—but, he says, what we do, we're going to do well. He has praised, on several occasions, the CLA 2015 report, which suggests a creative course of action for the college in a new era of limited budgets.

He's emphasized repeatedly the importance of "the purposeful inclusion of people of color at every level," commenting that "every shade of skin can be seen on the Stony Brook campus," and that "we can do that here." It is key, he says, to the advancement of new ideas.

He knows how to move technology and innovation out of the classroom and into the market, how to work with businesses, how to find new sources of funding, new donors, more money. He’s successfully faced deep cuts in state funding at Stony Brook.

Absolutes haven't made their way into the conversation yet. His term is more than seven months in the distance, and he admits he has a lot to learn. While his time at Stony Brook won’t end until June, Kaler says he will be back here often, using "vacation" time to get to know the U.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about all of the claims Kaler makes is that after about 30 minutes of listening to him, I believe he's absolutely going to do what he says. That he can do what he says—that he'll get the details he needs to lead the U. He's confident. His wife, Karen, is confident. To hear her tell it, she knew Eric would be the next president of the University of Minnesota the minute Eric said he would apply. He did, and she said, “Well, I guess we’re moving back to Minnesota.”

A transformative time
They’ve both been here before. Eric Kaler came to the U for his graduate experience in 1978. He spent much of his time then in Amundson Hall. “Amundson was home to the best chemical engineering department in the country and was a place where I had an enormous intellectual experience. I sort of grew up as a scientist in that building,” he says.

Over the interviews of the past days, Kaler has more than once called his experience at the U “enormously transformative.” He attributes that to two advisers, Skip Scriven and Ted Davis, who were “incredibly smart, focused, and driven people.”

“They created a large group that had such an expectation of excellence and success that you were just carried along by it,” Kaler says. Other students from that time, says Kaler, have gone on to become deans at Stanford and Notre Dame, provost at MIT, president of Boston University, and faculty members around the nation and the world; or on to terrific careers in industry. “The intensity was just so high, you got eight years of education in four years time. It was a really remarkable intellectual environment to be in,” he says.

Laid forward
After getting his Ph.D. in 1982, Kaler took a faculty position in at the University of Washington.

Reflecting for a moment, Kaler calls it a good place, and a good department. But, he says, “it was a little laid back—surely less intense than the graduate experience I’d just come out of.”

Here, Karen speaks up more pointedly. “You know, Seattle is a lovely place. You'd go hiking and relax and the people there were very laid back. Eric is laid forward.”

An easy relationship

The way Kaler and his wife easily play off of one another during conversations—if one forgets a detail, the other fills it in—suggests that in spite of what’s obviously been a very busy life together, many of their memories are of a shared experience. The two met in the summer of 1979 at the University of Tennessee, where Eric had come to do summer research.
"I was an RA in the residence halls,” says Karen, “and so for summer projects, people would come and stay in our buildings. Eric was the first to arrive.”

Here, Eric jumps in, “I paid about 280 bucks for the summer lease on that place,” he says. “$270,” she corrects him. This is integral to their relationship.

“No one told me (the group Eric was with) had made a $30 deposit beforehand," says Karen. “So I told him $270, and he paid me and went on his way. The next guy came in, and I told him $270, and he said, ‘no, I sent in a deposit.’ Nobody told me. I said immediately, ‘Oh no! I've charged somebody too much.’”

Eric adds, "That guy, I'd known him at Cal Tech; he was a year behind me. I said to him, ‘You know, this is a pretty good deal for $270 bucks.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, that woman downstairs tried to charge me $270, too, but she didn't know I sent in a deposit.’ And I said, 'I sent in a deposit, too!’ So I go downstairs, and she says…" (Here again, Karen finishes Eric’s sentence.) “'I know. You must be Eric Kaler, and I am so sorry.'”

It took a long time for the check to come, says Eric, and in the meantime he had a reason to go talk with Karen.

 “The first time we actually talked at length," she says, "I asked, ‘What is small angle X-ray scattering?’ (the research Eric was doing at Tennessee). And he explained it to me, in detail, and told me about enhanced oil recovery, and about how surfactants work.”

“It turns out nobody had ever talked to her about science,” says Eric. “It was her secret weakness." Just six months after they began dating, they were married. He proposed at Jax Cafe in Northeast Minneapolis.

Candidate C
Back when Kaler was known as "Candidate C," Regent John Frobenius referred to him as a person with a sense of humor. There's no doubt he has one, and it makes it very easy to talk with him.

This is an important point. Kaler has emphasized throughout his public appearances that communication is going to be key at the U. "In times when all discussion seems to be about cutting, having open lines of communication will be important," he said at one forum. When he first arrived at Stony Brook University, Kaler says that there hadn't been enough attention paid to make sure that faculty voices were heard, and that the faculty felt engaged with the institution and about what was going on.

"I worked hard on that. It was important to me that the faculty did feel part of the university in every way, that they felt connected, and felt that their opinions mattered. So I worked on that through a lot of conversations and communication."

Over the next six months and into the beginning of his term, Kaler has promised to do a lot of listening. He says he’ll be making time to meet with every department and the coordinate campuses. There’s no reason to believe he won’t do exactly as he says.