Hundreds of figures in academic regalia paraded into Ted Mann Concert Hall Thursday morning. The last to enter was Eric Kaler, dressed in a pinkish-red doctoral robe.
Kaler smiled, surveying the faces of faculty, staff, students, alumni and community members in the audience. He was about to be inaugurated as the 16th president of the University of Minnesota.
Kaler’s job technically started July 1. In the ensuing months, he’s acquainted himself with the University’s coordinate campuses in Crookston, Morris, Duluth and Rochester, and allocated $50 million in unexpected special session funding from the Legislature –- a third to tuition and the rest to hire faculty and revamp research programs.
Both Board of Regents Chair Linda Cohen and Gov. Mark Dayton praised Kaler for his commitment to the University from such an early point in his tenure.
“Dr. Kaler knows how crucial the University of Minnesota is to our state’s educational, social and economic vitality,” Dayton said, stressing the importance of upholding Minnesota’s traditional investment in education.
The $8.6 billion impact of the University – Minnesota’s only research institution – is greater than the economic impact of all eight of the Boston area’s research institutions combined, Dayton said.
“If you have all your eggs in one basket, you’d better take mighty good care of that basket,” Dayton said, recounting a favorite phrase of his father.
“He must have all of our support,” Dayton said, including the University community, the Legislature, the people of Minnesota and the business community. “I’ve assured him of my support,” Dayton said.
With that, Dayton handed Kaler the University mace, a symbol of leadership.
“May you lead it to greatness,” he said. The crowd gave a standing ovation as Cohen presented Kaler with the medallion of the president.
Kaler took the stage, his speech highlighting two themes in particular: advocacy and diversity.
Now officially at the helm of the University, Kaler faces years of diminished state funding and the pressing need to do more with less.
Kaler outlined his plan: Convince the Legislature, the citizens and the Minnesota business community that investment in the University is worthwhile.
“From the pacemaker to the black box, from open heart surgery to Honeycrisp apples, the University’s history is rich and profound,” Kaler said. “If we don’t invest…we absolutely will not discover new things. Instead, we will wither as a university, and we will decline as a state.”
Kaler wants to see the University become more entrepreneurial, increasing private funding by calling on more alumni and community businesses to help.
Amid accusations of administrative bloat, Kaler promised to cut the size of the administration each year he’s president. But that doesn’t mean faculty gets a free ride – efficiency among and within departments will also be evaluated.
“If your research is stale, if your classroom is boring, if your community engagement is ineffective, you must reinvent yourself, or, frankly, you must step aside,” Kaler said. “As you expect me to deliver on my job, I expect you to deliver on yours."
Furthermore, Kaler wants to make the University of Minnesota one of the top three publicresearch institutions in the country – a point former president Bob Bruininks stressed throughout his presidency.
“He seems to have a beautiful vision for how to carry (the University) forward,” said Stanley Sandler a University of Delaware faculty member who worked closely with Kaler at that institution. As a researcher and Minnesota alumnus, Sandler praised Kaler’s commitment to streamlining administration and focusing on faculty research. “He faces a challenging time.”
Ifrah Esse couldn’t speak English when she immigrated from Somalia at age 11. That didn’t stop her from graduating from the University in 2008 with a bachelor’s in sociology. Now, she’s a sourcing specialist at Target.
The University must take advantage of this diversity, Kaler said. By 2035, about half of the Twin Cities population will be minorities.
“I was really pleased when he talked about the importance of diversity,” said Njeri Githire, a professor of African American and African studies at the University, after Kaler’s speech.
Githire tries to emphasize diversity in the Twin Cities community in her classroom. Many of her students are elementary education majors who need to be prepared for Minnesota’s future, she said.
“I can think of no community, no challenge, no classroom that is not enhanced by diversity,” Kaler said.
That also means supporting Minnesota students – part of the mission of the land grant university. Kaler introduced Kenny Deutz, who grew up on a farm in Marshall and is now studying to become a veterinarian.
The University should support a range of academic programs, too. Kaler has voiced strong support for the health sciences since his term began, but his inaugural speech also spoke for the liberal arts.
“American public education is the envy of the world because students get a core in the humanities,” Kaler said. “The ability to reason and criticize is essential to our democracy and civil society.”
Kaler’s inauguration cost $170,500, including everything from campus crawls, decor, events, facility rental and meals.Bruininks’ 2002 inauguration was scaled back to $100,000 in comparison to his predecessor, Mark Yudof’s at $185,000. Inaugurations have traditionally been privately financed, said Jeff Falk, assistant director of University News Service.
The ceremony was live tweeted by 16 “social media ambassadors,” students chosen to tweet along with Kaler’s inaugural week. The University estimates it was the most watched presidential inauguration in the school’s history.
To date, Malcolm Moos (1967-1974) and Kaler are the only twoalumnito have served as president.
“What am I doing today to improve the lives of our students and our state” is a question every person connected to the University should be asking themselves daily, Kaler said. To underscore that commitment, Kaler announced the establishment of the Kaler family scholarship, which will support four University undergraduates each year.
Bells on the West Bank rang as Kaler’s inaugural ceremony let out.
"Together, we can re-invent the land grant vision of the 19th century to meet the global needs of the 21st century,” Kaler said
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