The Minnesota Daily met with University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler for this year’s final monthly interview on Friday, Dec. 1.
Kaler shared his thoughts on the University’s biggest challenges this year, his 2018 priorities and the University’s relationship with the Minnesota Legislature ahead of the 2018 legislative session.
How was your Thanksgiving?
It was nice. ... Our younger son Sam and his wife [Lizzie]… They live in San Francisco now, so they came, and we had dinner at Lizzie’s grandparents’ house in Bloomington. It was very nice.
On Nov. 27, you sent out a statement voicing your opposition to the federal tax bill moving through Congress. Many are worried that the bill would make graduate school unaffordable for students. What has the University done to fight this legislation?
We’ve done a great deal of things because this is bad legislation for our graduate students. There really are no two ways about it. It’s fundamentally unfair for them to incur attacks on a benefit that we provide for them but for which they receive no additional money. … We’ve driven a great deal of publicity and information around this, and as a consequence, have generated more than [21,000] contacts of our members of our delegation, opposing this tax increase. I continue to be worried about it. …We’ll continue to work hard with our delegation and our constituents to oppose that legislation.
If the legislation passes as it is now, will the University take any steps to alleviate the burden on graduate students?
We will do everything we can. The challenge… is it’s difficult to plan for a change in the law when you don’t know what the new law will be. So we will clearly evaluate it very carefully, and we will do all that we can to mitigate the impact on graduate students because adding additional debt burden and tax liability to someone who’s at the beginning of their career — trying to get an advanced degree themselves and contribute to the economy — just makes no sense.
Last time we spoke, College of Science and Engineering Dean Sam Mukasa was one of the finalists for an administrative role at the University of Connecticut. You said at the time that if he didn’t get the role, you would “need him to consider what the right role and balance of responsibilities” are for him at the University. Given that it was announced [Thursday] that he didn’t get the job, is that still the case?
Yes, and I believe he’s having some conversations with the Provost about how to develop his role going forward.
And why does that need to happen?
I think that we always look for dean leadership for the long run, and he’s indicated that issues in his family and personal [life] have indicated that maybe this isn’t the place that he can be for a long time.
What would the process of re-evaluating look like?
That would be in the Provost’s hands, and that’s a conversation that he and she will have.
Last legislative session, the Minnesota State Legislature funded less than half the University’s funding request. The next legislative session starts in February. How do you view the current relationship between the University and the Legislature?
I think it’s good. I think I have good personal relationships with many of the leaders in the House and the Senate and with the governor. But more importantly, I think many members of the Legislature see the value of the University and understand how important we are to the future of the state of Minnesota.
Some critics have called the relationship rocky. How would you respond to that?
I would have to discuss with that critic why they think the relationship is rocky. There are obviously many points of interaction, and many points of view around things that the University may or may not do, and certainly there are times in which an individual may wish the University was doing something differently, but I would not characterize it as rocky, no.
And does the University have any plans to change its lobbying tactics during the next session?
No, we have a good team of people in government relations and again I believe they’re building good relationships with key individuals in the Legislature.
This is our last interview of the year. What do you see as the biggest challenge the University faced during 2017?
I think we certainly worked through issues around free speech, around expression of political points of view and around the change in political dynamic in the country. An example is working through issues with our [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] students and being able to provide them with the resources that they need such as the Immigration Response Team and other support systems. I believe those have been the two points … we’ve had to work on the hardest.
And what do you think was the biggest success?
I think we have an entering freshman class that’s terrific. The best academic qualifications ever, slightly above our targets, so we’re popular — a place where students want to come and be successful, that’s a pretty good testament to the value of the University.
What are your top three University priorities for next year?
You mentioned the legislative session. We certainly want to advance our agenda there. … We also need to develop our 2019 budget and do that within the constraints of limited state support and as small a tuition increase as we can possibly have.
The holidays are approaching … What’s the best gift you’ve ever received?
Boy, is that a tough question. …The best gift anybody can have is the love and support of their family, and I’m lucky to have that.
And maybe you can tell me what your plans are for the holidays?
We will get together with our boys, we’ll spend some time in Northern California, and a little bit of other travel, but then we’ll be back here for New Year’s.
Editor's note: This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.