The Minnesota Daily sat down with University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler on Tuesday for its monthly “Kickin’ It with Kaler” interview.
Kaler, who is nearing the end of his second year, discussed his support for the DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented Minnesota students to pay in-state tuition, why he opposes smoking and the recent resignation of General Counsel Mark Rotenberg.
A version of the DREAM Act passed the Senate last week. You’ve indicated that you’d support implementing the policy at the University. Do you foresee any opposition?
I haven’t heard anything from the [Board of Regents] on this. I imagine I’ll hear some opposition from some corners. It seems to me that it’s easy to find someone who’s opposed to almost everything. But I believe it’s the right thing to do — to provide in-state benefits for undocumented students — and I would advance that for the University.
According to the legislative fiscal notes, the University could lose an estimated $175,000 a year with implementing the act.
That really is a very rough estimate. We don’t have a very good estimate of how many undocumented students we have here now, and we also don’t know how many might come if this were made available, so that really is a rough guess.
Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, withdrew his bill to expand alcohol sales at Mariucci and Williams arenas. Did you or anyone from the U request the bill’s withdrawal?
We did ask for the agreed-upon two-year trial run of selling alcohol at TCF [Stadium] to be honored, and we’re going to move forward with that.
At Friday’s Board of Regents meeting, the student representatives are presenting their annual report. They’re recommending the University becomes smoke-free, and you’ve indicated you support this. Why do you think the U should be smoke-free?
I’ve always supported this, despite what I read in your paper the other day. What I was eager to do when this came around the first time was ... [to be] sure that we [had] a broad buy-in across the entire University population, and we have that now. It’s come up through governance, and I think we have the momentum behind it to make it stick.
At the end of the day, it’s the people at the University and the community that need to want to do this; it’s not me or the police force running around giving people demerits for smoking. It really needs to be a community decision, and I’m glad to support that; I’m glad that’s where we are now, and I’m eager to see it in place.
Both my parents died of cancer related to smoking, so I’m pretty opposed to smoking.
What are the steps for implementation?
We’ve asked our colleagues at Boynton [Health Service] to develop an implementation plan. It will take a little while to sort out how best to do that. We’ll have conversations about where there might be smoking areas, about the scale of investment we would need in a smoking cessation program and whether or not we’d need to augment what we’re doing at Boynton now. There are several steps.
The student reps are also presenting ways to increase transparency of the University-wide instructor evaluation forms that students fill out for their courses. What do you think about this idea?
I think student evaluations should be more transparent. The information about the class structure … and how it’s taught is information that’s useful to know as they make decisions about what classes to fit into schedules.
However, it is clear from the lawyers that the personal information about the teachers’ performance does belong to the faculty member, and so my understanding is that they have to release that voluntarily, but I think some information should be more easily available to students.
The reps will also bring up the Open Textbook Catalog, where faculty select parts of different textbooks and arrange them effectively to save costs for students. What are some complications that come with this?
First I’ll say I’m hugely in favor of this. We need to do everything we can to ensure that the cost of attendance is as economical as it can be. I think the balance, though, is to make sure that the best teaching information is used. Unfortunately, sometimes that is not going to be available in an open format or a low-cost format, so the faculty member has to balance the cost versus the quality of what’s available.
University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg recently resigned to take a position at Johns Hopkins University. What was your reaction when you found out?
I was sad for the institution. We lose a great deal of institutional knowledge and a great lawyer, but I’m excited for Mark to have a new chapter in his life. I’ve moved a few times in my career and I found each of those moves to be invigorating and energizing, and I hope he finds that as he moves to Baltimore.
Pending approval by the regents, William Donohue will take over as general counsel. What went into the decision-making process?
I looked at my leadership team and a great many of us are still fairly new to the University, so it was important for me to keep institutional knowledge on the team. Bill has been here a long time and is a valuable link in that respect.
In addition, he’s a great lawyer. He’s been second-in-command at the OGC for many years. He’s highly effective at what he does, and I don’t think we’ll miss a beat as we make the transition.
You’re nearing the end of your second year as president at the U. In what ways did your second year as president differ from your first?
I think the first year in any kind of experience is always sort of special; you’re doing everything for the first time. This time around, it was the first time to present a biennial operating budget, so that experience of building the budget and working with our legislators to advance it has been interesting.
Also, I continued to build momentum around the Operational Excellence Program, streamlining and making what we do more efficient, and also bringing additional senior leaders on the team.
But clearly the biggest experience was building our budget and that will complete our biennium activities. That two-year cycle really is the complete cycle for the University, so I feel like I’ve seen everything we’ll do at the University at least once.
What are you looking forward to in the summer?
Some travel. We’re going to China for two weeks to visit a variety of partners. I’m also looking forward to getting away for a couple weeks with [my wife] Karen in August for some vacation time.
Anything else to add?
It’s graduation season. We’re about to let about 15,000 Minnesota students loose to change the world for the better. We have some great milestones: the first graduating class at [the University of Minnesota-Rochester], the first graduating class in American Indian Studies Tribal Administration and Governance — it’s a new [master’s degree], and we have the first graduates of that at the University of Minnesota-Duluth — and it’s Morris’ 50th commencement, so that’s a great milestone for them.
And finally, the Legislature has not yet decided on our allocation, so I encourage folks to go to
supporttheu.umn.edu and contact their legislators and continue to voice their support for the U.