Kenneth Keller joined the University of Minnesota chemical engineering faculty in 1964. He subsequently became chair of the Faculty Consultative Committee, acting dean of the Graduate School, and in 1981, vice president for academic affairs. In 1984, upon the resignation of C. Peter Magrath, Keller was chosen to be acting president.
Minnesota governor Rudy Perpich challenged Keller to demonstrate that the University could make strategic choices. In February 1985, in a short paper titled "Commitment to Focus," Keller highlighted three strategic priorities: 1) strengthening graduate education and research, 2) positioning the University to be ranked one of the top five public universities, and 3) enhancing the preparation and experience of undergraduates.
Meanwhile, in the search for a new president, the committee did not find a strong pool of finalists, and Keller's name kept coming up as they searched the country for nominations. Although Keller had initially ruled himself out as a possible candidate, the regents strongly urged him to let his name be considered. Ultimately Keller was persuaded, and he was named president on March 13, 1985.
President Keller was supportive of colleges and departments as they developed their objectives within the framework of "Commitment to Focus." He also laid the groundwork for a campaign to raise $300 million in private funds; at the time, among the highest fund-raising goals set by a public university. When the three-year campaign ended, more than $365 million had been raised, with more than 63,000 donations made in 1987-88 alone.
In the summer and fall of 1987, several problems arose. A report by a University committee charged with expense reduction proposed the closing of the School of Dentistry, the College of Veterinary Medicine, and the mortuary science program. Although immediately rejected by the president and the regents, the resulting furor raised anxiety about access to the University. That fall, public attention again focused on the University when there was a public outcry regarding the costs of renovating Eastcliff, the president's official residence.
By February 1988, key legislators seemed reassured about "Commitment to Focus." There was, however, other unsettling news: costs to install a University-wide telephone system had run over budget, the men's basketball team was placed on probation, and a question was raised as to whether the regents were aware of the existence of a $50 million reserve fund in the University budget. Although the president was not directly responsible for these developments, they undermined his administration. As a result, Keller resigned on March 13, 1988, three years to the day after he was named president.
Although Keller's resignation slowed the momentum of "Commitment to Focus," future presidents continued to refer to it as they established their own academic priorities. After two years at Princeton University and seven years on the Council on Foreign Relations, Keller returned to the University of Minnesota in fall 1996 as the Charles M. Denny, Jr. Professor of Science, Technology, and Public Policy in the Hubert Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. He also retains the rank of professor in chemical engineering and materials science.
Source: Stanford Lehmberg and Ann M. Pflaum, The University of Minnesota, 1945-2000 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 191-205.