Presidential finalist Eric Kaler capped off his first day of meetings at the University of Minnesota with a rapid-fire question-and-answer session on topics ranging from athletics to research to the liberal arts.
Kaler, currently provost at Stony Brook University, spent Wednesday meeting with professors and deans before heading to Coffman Union, where he answered more than two dozen audience questions in about an hour.
Kaler, the sole finalist named by the Board of Regents to replace outgoing President Bob Bruininks, will spend Thursday morning meeting with business and student leaders before a public interview with the regents at 11:45 a.m.
If the meetings go well, Kaler could be named president by the end of the week, Regents Chairman Clyde Allen said. If named, he would take office July 1.
More than 200 people, mostly faculty, staff and administrators, attended Wednesday’s forum, and nearly 400 watched the event online.
Wearing a maroon and gold tie, Kaler addressed the crowd with humor and laid out his vision for the University.
“Let me start by telling you something I am not … I flat out cannot coach football. I’m here for the other job,” said Kaler, who received a chemical engineering Ph.D. from the University in 1982. “My goal is to help you move Minnesota to the top level of public universities in the country.”
Kaler touched on a wide range of topics, including fundraising, commercializing research and how his time at Stony Brook prepared him to be president.
After spending the week researching the University, Kaler said he feels he still has much to learn and many more conversations are needed with members of the University community.
“You’ve probably had the dream where you show up to class and there’s a test and you haven’t actually taken the class yet — some of these questions are like that,” he said.
Many questions centered on how Kaler, who has a decorated science and engineering background, would support the liberal arts as president.
“[Liberal arts] are an essential element of a university and it’s required for the public good for us to have that as a central part of our mission,” he said.
Kaler talked about enriching the undergraduate experience by improving advising and making class scheduling more student-friendly.
Students should also have experiences outside their curriculum, whether through a research opportunity, service learning or study abroad, Kaler said.
The University needs to improve its graduation rates, he said, and keep school affordable through financial aid and scholarships.
Students at the event were positive in their initial reactions to the presidential finalist.
“I think he would be a good step forward for the University,” Aara Johnson, a second-year graduate student, said.
Kaler compared the complexity of programs at Stony Brook and the University. He also suggested programs to increase diversity and expand continuing education. Johnson said she was impressed with Kaler’s qualifications and suggestions.
Throughout the event, Kaler kept his focus on University students.
“[Kaler] spoke a lot about the experiences of undergraduates,” Johnson said. She wished he had touched more on graduate student issues.
Although he supports the rights of graduate students, faculty and staff to form unions, Kaler said he had mixed views about their benefits. He said the need for a union often means the University isn’t doing a good job supporting its employees.
Kaler said he was in favor of moving resources from administration to academics, and he plans to bring in a business consulting firm to help streamline processes and cut costs.
“I am convinced that we will be able to move dollars out of administrative overhead costs and into the academic budget,” he said.
He described himself as an “enormous fan of shared governance” and said he plans to take a collaborative approach to decision making that involves many groups.
Paul Strain, a student representative to the Board of Regents, said Kaler did a good job answering questions.
“I think it is really easy to speak jargon when addressing an audience like this,” Strain said. “He was very straightforward and he actually answered the tough questions, which is something the University has struggled with in the past.”
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