Eric Kaler, the University of Minnesota’s 16th president, woke up at 5:30 a.m. Thursday.
By 9:05 a.m. in his Morrill Hall office, he proudly brandished the maroon and gold “Class of 2015” temporary tattoo on his forearm — a tribute to the University’s incoming freshman class, which he was due to greet in minutes at the convocation ceremony in Mariucci Arena.
It’s a fresh start for both Kaler and the class of more than 5,300 new students. He took the University’s reins from former President Bob Bruininks in July, and his schedule is starting to fill up as the administrative gears start churning at the beginning of the school year.
But unlike many freshmen, the new president won’t have to carry a map to navigate campus. He earned his doctorate in chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota in 1982.
His wife, Karen, entered the room, escaping from the renewed hustle and bustle of residence hall move-in and campus construction.
“Hi sweetie, how’s the traffic?” he joked, giving her a peck on the cheek.
By the end of the day Thursday — a day filled with meetings and events that stretched far past the 12-hour mark — Kaler was still ecstatic about his new job.
“I love this. I say I’m about as thrilled as a human being can be.”
At Mariucci, Kaler disappeared into the locker room to don his doctoral robe. Emerging a few minutes later, he joined a crowd of similarly-clothed faculty and administrators that filled the belly of the arena.
“You’re the president, right?” Regent Dean Johnson joked with him. “We’re just getting to know each other.”
He’s already familiar with the 12-member Board of Regents, who appointed him as Bruininks’s successor last November. He and the board will work closely, jointly responsible for enacting administrative, academic and fiscal policies at the University.
“He’s off to a good start,” Johnson said of Kaler’s two-month stint in office. “You can feel his enthusiasm about the U.”
Previously, Kaler taught at the University of Washington and was a faculty member and dean of the University of Delaware’s College of Engineering. He became the provost of Stony Brook University in New York in 2007.
The University is nearly twice the size of Stony Brook, and Kaler recognized the challenges that await him.
“The president has ultimately the responsibility for managing the University and also the responsibility for developing a strategic vision and setting goals for the University,” Kaler said. “It’s a combination of leadership and management.”
Unassuming and warm, he moved between faculty acquaintances and strangers, introducing himself as he went along.
“I’m excited to see all the faces and students back — it’s a time of excitement and a time of optimism,” Kaler said.
The robed procession entered the arena, taking seats on and near the stage.
Kaler rose to address the class after an introductory video in which he starred opposite Goldy Gopher.
In his speech, Kaler urged the freshman class to take advantage of the opportunities available to them at the U — inside and outside academics.
Kaler’s father was in the Air Force, and his mother was a housewife. They stressed the importance of education to their only child, who became the first in his family to go to college.
“Both my mother and father were avid readers. There were always books in the house. My father was always curious about things and always trying to learn,” Kaler said. “He was really focused on education — he just didn’t get a chance to go to college.”
Kaler earned his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1978.
As concerns about rising tuition at the University of Minnesota mount, Kaler notes that he, too, graduated from college with debt.
“We were still paying off loans for years, [but] I had a lot of scholarships,” he said. “And my parents, although we didn’t really talk about it, I’m sure they sacrificed to help me go.”
From student government to research, Caltech’s academic environment prompted Kaler to try new things, and he urged Minnesota’s freshman class to do the same.
Finally, the marching band entered. Kaler’s smile widened as the freshman class was introduced to Gopher songs and cheers.
Kalers on campus
The Kalers already seem comfortable in their new roles as the University’s first family.
They’re still getting settled at Eastcliff, the president’s official residence in St. Paul. The home is a far cry from the apartment on University Avenue and Sixth Street and the high rise on Thornton Street they lived in while Kaler finished graduate school in the early ’80s.
“Everything’s pretty much unpacked, but there are a few things that aren’t organized,” Karen Kaler said. Their Spanish water dogs, Mo and Lida, are still getting adjusted.
“They’re pretty bashful,” she said.
Kaler met Karen Fults when his University of Minnesota graduate work took him to Tennessee in the summer of 1979. There, she was a student of art.
She worked in Eric Kaler’s dormitory building and accidentally charged him $30 more than he owed for his board.
“He was so friendly and so nice about it,” she said. The mistake gave the two an excuse to chat until Eric Kaler got the nerve to ask her on a date. Six months later, they were married.
She moved with him to Minnesota, where people still have a hard time understanding her Tennessee accent.
Years later, the couple has two grown sons: Charlie, 25, and Sam, 23.
In his spare time, the new president can be found watching sports — he likes football and basketball, but baseball is his favorite.
“I always have been a Twins fan since I was a student here,” Kaler said. “In the four-game series with the Yankees, the only game the Twins won was the one I went to, and I hate the Yankees. I really think they should invite me more frequently.”
After meetings all day Thursday with regents, staffers, speechwriter Jay Weiner, friends of the University and Vice President for Research Tim Mulcahy, it was home for a quick dinner and another wardrobe change — this time into a maroon and gold football polo.
Surveying his new territory
At 8 p.m., the Kalers returned to campus to attend a Welcome Week pride and spirit event.
“The stadium is a lot smaller at Stony Brook,” he noted proudly from his new box seats at TCF Bank Stadium. He tapped his feet as the marching band entered the field, followed by cheerleaders and Goldy the Gopher.
He discussed this year’s Gopher football prospects with an athletics coach — the new president doesn’t seem to need much training in that department.
“I’m open to becoming a hockey fan,” Kaler said, admitting that he knows very little about the game.
He also loves to travel, though the demands of his new job as president have, of late, kept him Minnesota-bound.
“Every place we’ve been, I’ve been impressed by the warmth and the enthusiasm that the people have for the University,” Kaler said. Those who are unhappy with it are disappointed that an institution they love hasn’t met their expectations, he added.
Despite the school’s financial woes — rising costs, competition and tuition amid diminished state support — Kaler is determined to make the University a better, more efficient institution.
“I hope when I’m finished as president in 10 or 15 years that the University is in the conversation about the top universities in the country.”
In many ways, it’s already comparable to top-tier public universities like Michigan and Virginia, he said. But there’s a disparity between the quality of the education and its reputation.
“I want to move that image and I want to make our good programs great and our great programs the best in the world,” Kaler said.
Private fundraising, Kaler has said in the past, could help the University cope with the legislature’s continued cutting of the school’s budget.
“I don’t think people want to aspire to be at a University that doesn’t want to be great,” he said. To that end, Kaler will outline his plans for the University in his inaugural address Sept. 22.
In the meantime, Kaler’s got the first few weeks of class ahead of him.