Kaler talks budget, football and Chick-fil-A

The Daily sat down with the University's president to discuss his new budget proposal, as well as departure's of senior administrators.
September 25, 2012

The Minnesota Daily sat down with University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler last week to discuss his recent budget proposal to the Board of Regents, the upcoming departure of two senior administrators and the student-led petition attempting to remove Chick-Fil-A from
Coffman Union.

You’re a little over two weeks into your second year as president. How has the start of this school year been for you compared to last year?

It’s hard to compare to last year because that was such a thrill. You know first time in, just amazing energy and engagement, and the inauguration process, which was very special. And this is, in some sense, obviously, more comfortable — you’re doing things for the second time.

I get a lot of energy out of seeing our students, talking to them, welcoming them into campus, having the convocation event, which I think is good and meaningful for first-year students. I think all the faculty and staff appreciate the change as we go from the end of August to the first of September. Just the vibrancy of the students. … It’s terrific to get to know them.

Last week, you presented your biennial budget request to the Board of Regents. What kind of initial feedback have you gotten?

It’s been really, very positive from everybody. The regents all appreciated the transparency. It’s very clear what we want to do, the priorities of controlling tuition, priorities of investing in our research mission, priorities of providing some ideas around tax structures that would be progressive and helpful for students and their families.

I previewed it with a variety of legislative leaders, and I would say … they think it’s a bold idea, a new way of framing the conversation. And it really makes it very clear what the state’s getting for its money.

A major part of your budget is a tuition freeze that would apply to undergraduate students from Minnesota. Is there any part of this tuition freeze that would apply to out-of-state students receiving reciprocity?

Yes. The reciprocity business is, basically, wherever the resident undergraduate tuition rate applies, Minnesota residents and reciprocity students, both tuitions would be constant. There will continue to be a differential tuition for students in the Carlson School [of Management], along the lines that we’ve put in place.

Another main point of your budget plan is a research-based program called MnDrive that focuses on the state’s research strengths. Is there any research happening specifically here at the U that you find particularly interesting?

I think, coming out of a science-research career, I find nearly everything that we do really interesting. It’s just remarkable across the humanities and social sciences, the hard sciences, engineering, medicine, public policy, professional schools; people are working on really fascinating issues. Whether it’s the effect of the Minnesota National Guard deployment on families and veterans as they return to research being done on neuromodulation in the medical school to control central nervous diseases. … I’m a pretty inquisitive person, I like to know stuff, and so I find the opportunity to learn about what we’re doing really fun.

Now that you’ve presented your budget request to the regents, what are the next steps to seeing your plan come to fruition?

So the process is that we present things like this to the regents for review in one month, and then approval at the next meeting. So I will request approval of the budget by the regents in the October meeting. And then our plans are due to the state Oct. 15. They then go through the Office of Management of Budget, and ultimately our process to the governor, then [he] presents his budget request when the legislative session moves forward. Then we enter the political process and try to have our advocates help us move that message forward.

Two long-time University employees, Jerry Rinehart and Robert Jones, have recently announced plans to leave the U for retirement and to assume the presidency at the University at Albany, respectively. What do their departures mean for the University?

They’re both losses, for sure. Jerry has had a long and incredibly impactful career helping out students outside of the classroom. He’s had a great run for almost 10 years in really managing the student-life experience. I rely on him a great deal, and I’ll miss him very much. He’s had an enormous impact on the University.

And much the same can be said for Robert. Robert’s been here 34 years; he’s helped grow the sense of system around the University of Minnesota system, in linking the Twin Cities campus and others. He’s had a big role in advancing the international reputation of the University, and he’s a very big influence on our efforts to close the achievement gap and improve K-12 education in Minnesota. So both of them will be really, very much missed.

Many students have expressed wishes to have the Chick-fil-A in Coffman closed in the wake of anti-gay statements made by Chick-Fil-A’s president. Have you gotten any feedback directly from students on this matter?

I’ve certainly heard that from some students. As you know, Aramark manages all of those food vendors. They have a relationship with Chick-fil-A; it is a contractual relationship. But there are a lot of food options in Coffman, and if people don’t want to eat at Chick-fil-A, they shouldn’t eat at Chick-fil-A.

As of this interview, the Gophers football team has a 3-0 record. Any big predictions for this season?

You know, I am always optimistic about Gopher football. And I think we’ve got a great football coach. So I think, as I see the level of play, the team is far advanced of where they were last year, so I predict a better year than last year, which is a guarantee, and continued improvement and continued success for our student-athletes.

Anything else to add?

Budget is really the big one … being able to help our students and families afford the University is a big deal, and we’re going to try hard to do that, to renew the historic partnership we’ve had with the state, and save our students …

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