Despite past challenges and future financial uncertainty, President Eric Kaler said the University of Minnesota is strong in his State of the University address Thursday at Coffman Union.
In front of roughly 250 students, staff and faculty, Kaler outlined the University’s plans to implement new changes amid “the perfect storm for higher education” of economic woes, budget cuts and record-high tuition and student debt.
Kaler warned against “knee-jerk” reactions to solving higher education issues while emphasizing the need to embrace “bold ideas.”
“I know we’re not perfect, but our flaws are not fatal,” Kaler said, “and the state of the University is strong.”
Kaler stressed the importance of attracting the nation’s top graduate and professional students.
“I came here as a graduate student, and I am not about to let our graduate programs slip in terms of national reputation,” he said, adding that Karen Hanson, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost, would partner with deans and faculty leaders to create a long-term, sustainable plan for graduate student recruitment.
Kaler said the first step to what he called “graduate school 2.0” would be to increase funding for doctoral fellowship programs by more than $750,000.
Graduate and Professional Student Assembly President Brittany Edwards said the investment indicated Kaler was making graduate programs a priority.
Kaler said a closer look into the graduate programs could result in greater investments in stronger programs and cuts in others — something he said would be “painful.”
GAPSA will be involved in the graduate program transition evaluation process to ensure students are involved, Edwards said.
“We’re interested in helping design some of the evaluation metrics,” she said. “We just want to make sure that students have a voice and that decisions are made based on student input.”
In a list of accomplishments, Kaler highlighted the University’s recent partnering with Coursera to offer massive online open courses, or MOOCs. Kaler said these new offerings are the first steps in developing a comprehensive eLearning strategy on each University campus, but they are not a “silver bullet” tactic for greater cost savings or academic accessibility.
Instead, Kaler said, faculty would pair MOOCs and other digital technologies with face-to-face classroom teaching.
“Even with MOOCs, instructors will not become obsolete,” he said.
Kaler mentioned the budgetary limitations to interdisciplinary work and research that “defines the cutting edge in most fields, and that is critical to solving most of today’s problems.”
He called on Hanson and Vice President for Research Brian Herman to develop recommendations to strengthen interdisciplinary teaching and research.
Cate Brumm, a third-year dentistry student, said she would’ve liked to hear professional programs mentioned more in Kaler’s speech.
“It’s interesting because the professional schools aren’t really mentioned in the push for an increase in graduate funding,” she said.
Brumm said the cost of professional education has increased exponentially, with some dentistry students facing $400,000 in debt.
“Proportionally that’s a little out of the same league as undergrads, so we’d like to see the president really increase affordability to professional schools,” she said. “I think it’s in the works, maybe.”
The president announced that he wants to interact more with students by holding monthly office hours on the Twin Cities campus and by traveling to the University’s Duluth, Crookston and Morris campuses.
Freshmen Joelle Stangler and Valkyrie Jensen attended the event and said they would definitely take advantage of the office hours.
Both Jensen and Stangler are members of the Minnesota Student Association. Stangler, a political science major, said she would like to talk to Kaler about the role he thinks student government should play on campus.
“[I’d ask him], ‘What do you want to see from student government?’” she said. “Because I don’t feel like they have as large of a presence as they should.”
Diversity and controversy
Following his speech, Kaler answered a few questions submitted by faculty, staff and students on topics from increasing campus diversity to sponsoring a controversial symposium.
Kaler said increasing diversity was “critically important,” noting that the University has made progress but is still not satisfactory.
He acknowledged that the African-American student population is “nowhere near where it should be” and that the University would continue to engage with programs in Minneapolis aimed at increasing minority student exposure to higher education.
“We cannot claim to be an excellent University without being a diverse University,” he said.
The moderator also brought up a question about the controversy surrounding the upcoming University-sponsored symposium “The Female Orgasm: A Program About Sexual Health and Women’s Empowerment.”
Kaler said that the University would not stop hosting events considered controversial or taboo because the University is a place where faculty members and programs have the right to put forth different ideas that may “open the eyes of our students to different ways of thinking.”
Kaler also responded to questions submitted by faculty members concerned about structural changes and job cuts that may arise from the current spans and layers analysis being conducted on administrative spending.
The University —under fire recently for reports of excessive administrative spending — recently hired a human resources consulting firm to review the administrative structure and provide recommendations for cost savings and increased efficiency. The University will present a report to the state Legislature on March 15.
Kaler admitted the impact of the possible changes may seem “scary and frightening” to faculty and staff.
“I can’t promise it will be smooth and easy,” he said. “But I can promise to be as fair and transparent as humanly possible.”
Math and finance junior Matt Forstie attended the speech to hear the president talk about undergraduate tuition and the University’s commitment to affordability and access, something he said Kaler “kind of skipped on.”
“I think President Kaler could do more. He talks a little about operational excellence and administrative accountability, and I like that focus, but I think there’s a lot more that could be done,” he said. “I guess I’ll wait and see what’s in the March 15 report and what he does about it, but so far I’m skeptical.”
Forstie is the chair of the Minnesota Student Legislative Coalition, a student lobbying group at the Capitol. Forstie said he spends “almost every day” at the Capitol and thinks the Legislature is looking forward to the accountability report, but many still have doubts.
“I think the University does a lot of great things, and we’ve made a lot of improvements over the last few years,” Forstie said.
“We can definitely show those things to the Legislature, but we also have to be accountable.”