The first day on the job, University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler began to tackle a budget crisis amid a state shutdown.
Last week he sat down with the Minnesota Daily to talk about his progress and thoughts after a month at the helm. He discussed his priorities for the University, greek life and state funding.
The interview has been edited for clarity.
Your first month as president just came to an end. How did it go?
Well, technically first month and four days âÄî IâÄôm keeping track âÄ¦ I think many, many people, I can say, truly do love the University of Minnesota âÄ¦ TheyâÄôre proud to either be associated with it now, or to have been associated with it âÄ¦ Clearly, there are some things we could do better, and IâÄôm going to work on them.
Were there any surprises?
Surprise is too strong of a word. I would say I continue to hear about the passion people have for the Gopher[s] athletics. It is important to a lot of people âÄ¦ I would say IâÄôm not surprised but gratified about the depth of good feeling for the University.
Do you have a better idea of what you want to do with the University now?
ItâÄôs a learning experience, so I know more than I did, and itâÄôs clear that the focus on excellence is something that people appreciate and support. And itâÄôs becoming clearer to me âÄî some of the business and process areas that we need to bring special attention to, in the back of the house, if you will. And also conversations with the deans that are informing me more and more about their academic programs and letting me be specific about understanding their strengths.
Can you give an example of business areas we need to bring special attention to?
I think across the board we really need to look hard at all of the transactional things that we do. From [human resources], to purchasing, how we deliver our [information technology], what kind of products âÄî all of those business elements need to be looked at. Some of them are probably fine, but some of them probably need to be more efficient.
Your latest correspondence to the faculty was a very candid email about the fiscal situation. Is this kind of frankness part of your leadership style and how will that translate into your actions as president?
I think if you ask people who have known me in previous leadership roles, I usually donâÄôt have any problem in making my thoughts clear. So IâÄôm pretty direct and frank, and I also like to convey that in action, so that when I want to go in certain direction, it wonâÄôt be a mystery to anybody that thatâÄôs what I want to do. âÄ¦
Dancing around the subject is something that I donâÄôt like to do.
What was the facultyâÄôs response?
The email feedback IâÄôve gotten has been generally very positive. People are appreciating that message.
How would you handle criticism toward the University, especially from within the University itself?
The administration should be able to respond to controversial topics with a clear and consistent statement of what the UniversityâÄôs principles are and how those principles apply to the particular controversy at hand. My chief of staff Amy Phenix has a strong background in communications, and that was an important reason of why I hired her. WeâÄôre interviewing for a chief communications officer now, and that person will lead our ability to respond more clearly when controversial subjects come to hand. âÄ¦
I think people have the First Amendment right to speak freely about what they believe. I think all of those discussions have to be based on facts, and frankly, theyâÄôre not always based on facts. The University response needs to be factual and direct, and thatâÄôs what weâÄôll endeavor to do in every case.
The University received $27.2 million more in state funding than anticipated. How will the money be used?
WeâÄôve asked the students to take about a third of the burden [of the funding cuts] and so as we get off of our worst case scenario I would expect to use about a third of that money to reduce the burden on students. On the other side âÄ¦ the other two-thirds I would like to put into our people. And that means, perhaps, a small merit-based salary increase, perhaps the ability to respond to some strategic initiatives on the academic side.
Do you have a message for the freshman class?
I do. I wish them great success. I think the opportunities here are boundless. TheyâÄôre the most qualified class to come to the University, and IâÄôm looking forward to helping provide them with the education they deserve. And IâÄôm going to encourage them to look as broadly across the University for opportunity as they possibly can.
And the rest of the University?
I think they will see in the coming year a commitment to moving the institution in the direction that highlights the excellent programs that we have. They can expect my administration to be accountable to them. And they can expect me to ask for accountability from them.
How is your Gophers collection coming along?
I have two bobbleheads âÄ¦ IâÄôm quite open to receiving additional bobbleheads.