President Eric Kaler gave his first State of the University address to a room full of faculty, staff and students in Coffman Thursday afternoon, previewing bold proposals that include a three-semester academic calendar and addressing the University’s 2013 budget, tuition and debt and operational efficiency.
Kaler suggested taking “a serious and rigorous look” at moving to a year-round academic calendar, with three semesters made up of 14 or 15-week periods.
The calendar would make it easier for students to graduate in less than four years, Kaler said.
Students would be able to earn 120 credits in less than three years and study abroad in a longer winter session or work under a new calendar, Kaler said.
This calendar would work around the religious holidays in December and the 10-day Minnesota State Fair. He also suggested that it would include an extended winter session in January.
A new academic calendar would allow for more laboratory and classroom space by reducing bottleneck issues. Having three semesters would also increase tuition revenue dollars to the University to hire more faculty, Kaler said.
Faculty would still teach two semesters a year, but could have two consecutive semesters dedicated to research.
Alternatively, faculty could decide to work nine months in a year and teach three semesters from time to time for additional compensation.
Kaler acknowledged challenges with a new calendar such as financial aid.
“I think the benefits could outweigh the challenges and this is an idea well worth moving forward,” Kaler said.
Kaler said the administration will be looking at the Twin Cities campus first before having any potential conversations with other campuses.
The logistics of a year-round calendar might be problematic, said Caroline Hayes, a mechanical engineering professor.
She said they are already strained on faculty levels in her department and a year-round academic calendar would require hiring more faculty and teaching assistants.
“I’m not sure how that would work,” Hayes said.
She also said students working through college might have problems if they no longer have the summer to make money.
Undergraduate student Hannah Smiltneek said she was taken aback by the possible change.
If students had to do a three-semester year, Smiltneek said she wouldn’t have wanted to come to the University.
Smiltneek also said that it would be hard to get to know faculty if students graduated in three years.
Joseph Konstan, a professor of computer science, said the change would be a good idea if students were encouraged to take their time for different experiences like research or work.
It would be an issue if the change were to be used to simply push students to finish quickly, he said.
2013 budget preview
Kaler previewed the budget he will recommend to the Board of Regents in May.
In that budget, he recommends a 2.5 percent pay increase to all employees, which follows three years of salary freezes or modest increases. The announcement was met with scattered applause.
“This rewards all of you who have carried us through some very difficult budgets,” Kaler said. “Thank you for understanding the effects state cutbacks have had on our operations.”
Kaler said that there will also be a $21 million pool for academic investments in his budget, which will be allocated competitively to different campuses and colleges during the budget process.
But Kaler emphasized that not everything is looking up for the University.
“To be clear, the state budget continues to be strained and this may affect our support in the future,” Kaler said. “But we cannot afford to put our aspirations on hold indefinitely.”
The topic of tuition and student debt came with a solemn expression.
Kaler emphasized that with the state’s dwindling support, it would be difficult and unrealistic to expect tuition to remain at current level.
“The fantasy that the University could somehow advance its mission and hold the line on tuition as state support dwindles is just that, a fantasy,” Kaler said.
Kaler emphasized the importance of operational excellence, or increasing efficiency throughout the University.
Since September, Kaler has been meeting with the Operational Excellence Committee, which includes Provost Karen Hanson, school deans and other top administrators.
The committee’s goal is to look at the operations of the University and decide on improvements that could be made, which may result in less bureaucracy and more efficiency at the University.
“We have to do this because we need to eliminate ESP in our organization. ESP stands for Extremely Stupid Procedures,” Kaler said, which was met with laughter around the room.
The group has held five listening sessions throughout December with faculty and staff from across the institute.
Kaler said one theme that became clear from the sessions is the need for the University to become “more nimble.”
Senior leaders have already been asked by Kaler to look over their policies and suggest changes that would streamline or improve their procedures.
“As a public institute, we’re governed by a lot of policies,” said Liz Eull, deputy chief of staff for policy and initiatives. “Not all of them our own.”
The Office of the Vice President for Research has already implemented some changes, including making the process of negotiations with companies partnering with the University easier.
Kaler said academic centers and institutes will be examined.
The University has 265 academic centers and institutes that have budgets of more than $200 million annually.
Kaler has asked deans to look at the value, scope and importance of those centers and institutes.
“We may find that some, and maybe even most, remain valuable and relevant, but I’m willing to bet others are not,” Kaler said.
Another smaller work group was recently formed to facilitate and implement the changes that the senior leadership group suggests.
“I want to re-envision the fundamental role of administration from one of enforcer to one of partner and facilitator,” Kaler said. “So that we can help units across the institution rethink how they work, what they do and how we solve shared problems. Together.”
Kaler’s initative to decrease bureaucracy was welcome news for Denise Windenburg, director of cardiology clinical research.
“I see the bog down in that area,” Windenburg said.
Another of Kaler’s proposed initiatives would allow University tenured and tenure-track faculty to take an “entrepreneurial leave.”
In that time, faculty could work full-time with businesses, start-ups and non-government organizations to develop ideas or products while keeping full benefits without salary.
“Basically, if you have a commercial, artistic or creative idea you’d like to explore, we will hold your place here,” Kaler said.
Kaler said this will help the University become more entrepreneurial.
Kaler is also establishing a formal research infrastructure funding pool. He has asked Tim Mulcahy, vice president for research, to look at “high-priority” research investment needs and create a budget for research infrastructure.
Kaler asked faculty and staff to improve their use of technology to enhance teaching and learning.
“I want our best thoughts about how to use modern tools to enable student access and I want to pilot those ideas, adopt what works and spread it across our campuses,” Kaler said.
Kaler advocated more use of eTexts, or electronic textbooks.
Hanson is a strong supporter of eTexts and helped implement their use at her former post at Indiana University.
Currently, more than 700 students at the University of Minnesota use eTexts as part of a pilot program.
Kaler said that eText usage can help reduce costs for students.