University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler sat down with the Minnesota Daily on Tuesday to discuss the Legislature’s failed bonding bill, the passage of the higher education bill, alcohol sales at TCF Bank Stadium and gender-neutral University housing.
The University had a victory in the Legislature this year — the Higher Ed Bill, which offered tuition freezes for the University.
It’s a huge opportunity for us to freeze undergraduate resident tuition for two years, which will save a student entering today about $2,500 over the course of [his or] her four-year career, which I’m very excited about. … We also got a big investment in our research enterprise in the MNDrive initiative … so a very good legislative session this year.
Can you talk about how this will impact the University community?
There are lots of pieces to this. There’s the direct appropriation to the University community, which is hugely important for our Minnesota resident undergraduate and reciprocity students, but there was also a significant investment in the … state grant program, and that’s going to enable additional help for our most needy students. I think for a fully Pell-eligible student, it’s going to have $700 of additional state aid they will be able to get.
The DREAM Act was included in the Higher Ed omnibus bill that passed last session. You’ve stated in the past you would advance this initiative at the University. How soon will the University be able to accommodate the bill?
I think we’re open for business now. The law is the law, and although we’ve pretty much completed admissions for the fall, as we look at transfer students or as we look at students who want to join us for the spring semester, we will be open and evaluate those applications. … I see absolutely no reason to deny that opportunity to young people or adults who have come to this country in a complicated way. I was really glad to see the act pass, and I think it’s the right thing to do for Minnesota going forward.
The bonding bill failed in the Minnesota Legislature last session, leaving the University without the funds that were requested for maintenance and improvement projects on campus. How will students feel that on campus?
Minnesota has a history of bonding every other year, so even numbered years is the bonding bill and odd numbered years typically not. ... While we didn’t get any money, I wouldn’t characterize that as a loss. I’d say we were pleasantly surprised there was a game at all. … We will go back next year, which is the traditional bonding year, with a very healthy request because we have substantial needs to maintain our infrastructure. We have 29 million square feet across all of our campuses, and I think about 30 percent of it is about 70 years old or older, so there really is a need for investment in that infrastructure, and we’ll be back at it.
One of the biggest goals in the capital improvement budget was more active-learning classrooms. Will the University still pursue those this year despite not receiving bonding money?
I think the need for us to generate more active-learning classrooms is really very acute. … As we begin to take advantage of online activities — MOOCs, other sort of technology enhancements — that sort of active environment will be very important. We will continue to push that, and it needs to be a priority for us.
Subsidized Stafford student loan interest rates are set to change from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent as of July 1 if an agreement isn’t made in Congress to avoid the increase. What will the University do to inform students if this increase happens?
I do know that at a high level we try to educate our students as effectively as we can around issues of financial literacy, and we really have to be able to have people who are taking on this debt … understand the obligations they are incurring and understand what this means to their long-term financial health. One of my favorite programs is [Live Like A Student]. It is very important for people to understand the impact of these loans and to adjust their lifestyle to need as little of that as possible.
One of the proposals as an alternative to raising the rate is to tie them to market rates. Do you support this idea?
I’ve seen interest rates that are very, very high, and those are awful burdens as you take those on and you move into a very inflationary period. These things are cyclical, and so it’s almost certain that they will come up again. So I think that any conversation about an adjustable rate or a market rate needs to be in the context of a cap so you can have a market rate and then capped at some level. … I also think not having these loan rates in touch with the market in some way creates an artificial situation that is probably not sustainable, so I do think that we need Congress to act.
The University recently renegotiated its deal with Aramark to sell alcohol at TCF Bank Stadium. What do you expect in terms of sales next season?
We anticipate next year being much like this year, except, of course, this year we took all of the startup costs against income, which created the illusion that we couldn’t make money selling beer — which was a crazy situation. So we won’t have those expenses next year, and we have a much better contract, so we anticipate turning a modest profit.
What is the status of the University’s master facilities plan for athletics?
I’d say it’s on a final lap to completion. It’s comprehensive, and it’ll be a big plan. I like to have some structure around all of the things that we do. It’s worthwhile for us to get a big view of all that we might do, and then we will enter a process of setting priorities and seeing what’s feasible to do in terms of philanthropy that we might raise to support it.
What are the possibilities for University gender-neutral housing?
I’ve been asked that question a couple of times, both at Morris and here. And I’ve asked our housing people to see what’s feasible there. I don’t see any big barriers. We have a very large housing stock, and across the country, when gender neutral housing is offered as an option, it’s taken by not many people — some, but not hundreds — so it would seem to me very sensible to find a way to accommodate that.
Earlier in the month, the Minnesota Daily asked readers to tweet us their questions for Kaler. To see those questions with Kaler's answers, click here.