The Minnesota Daily sat down with University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler on Monday for its monthly Kickin’ It with Kaler interview.
Kaler talked about the new $190 million athletics facilities plan, the future of alcohol sales at Coffman Union and the potential Teach for America partnership with the College of Education and Human Development.
You seemed optimistic [about Norwood Teague’s $190 million facilities plan] during the July 10 Board of Regents meeting, [but] what concerns might you have?
Let me sort of talk about that in a little bit different way. So, in my view, there are three things you have to do if you want to get something accomplished. The first is figure out what it is you need. The second is figure out how do you pay for it, and the third is do it. And so right now we have done step one of those things. … We don’t intend to ask the state for help in that — we think the state dollars should be used for academic priorities, so it’s a private fundraising activity. It might be enhanced by other ticket sales or media revenue. It’s primarily a private fundraising goal.
Do you think the $190 million is going to be difficult to achieve, or do you think that is do-able?
I think, over time, it is do-able.
Congress has agreed on a solution to lower student loan rates for the coming year. I’m interested to know how you feel about the agreement they have come to.
You know, I’m glad they
have reached an agreement. I’m glad the loan rates are lower than they potentially could have been, but it’s a compromise agreement, and I think it’s probably the best Congress could do under the current conditions. And I think it provides some certainty, so students know what is coming ahead, and that’s a good thing.
Do I wish the rates were lower? Sure I do. I think it is probably all in all a good outcome.
You signed a letter with more than 160 people that basically asked President Barack Obama to close the “innovation deficit.” I’d first like to identify what exactly that means.
So I view — and I think the other people who signed that letter view — this innovation deficit as this gap between what the United States is investing in research and in higher education. That gap between what we are doing and what our competitor countries are doing is very worrisome.
… And around the world, we are competing for the quality jobs. Things can get done in Shanghai or Minneapolis, and if you live in Minneapolis, you want those high-quality jobs to be in Minnesota. And so we need to invest in the machinery that creates that kind of innovation, and that is higher education.
Was your recent visit to China kind of what prompted your interest in this topic?
I’ve been interested in this for years and years. I mean, I’m a scientist, so this is kind of what I do. But certainly, the recent trip to China just reinforced what I already knew. The Chinese are spending like crazy to educate people and to enable people to be able to be innovative, and again, that’s the competition.
The Board of Regents have a new academic health committee [this year]. What specific topics do you personally hope they’ll address through this new committee?
Well, this is aimed at really helping the board become more educated about what we do in the academic health space. So it is really a committee about what is the future of academic education, research and patient care at the [University]. So it’s meant to be forward-looking but also a way for board members to become more broadly educated about what we do in the academic health enterprise.
After the proposal to merge with [the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview] was declined earlier this year, … is the University still hoping to enter into an agreement like that?
So, our relationship with Fairview right now is very stable. We’ve entered into what we’ve called an integrated structure — and we’ll come up with a better name for that soon — which allows … the University of Minnesota Physicians in particular … and Fairview to co-manage some of our assets in the health area. And we think that’s going to be a better partnership, and we’re looking forward to seeing that grow. It will improve the medical school, it will improve the experience of our students and residents, it will improve patient care; and we are in the process of rolling that out.
At the last Board of Regents meeting, there were several new alcohol licenses that were approved … but [Coffman] was not recommended …
Well, I think probably the primary reason is that that would be a brand-new license. We currently don’t have a license to serve the public in Coffman, which, of course, is the student union. So I think there needs to be some more conversation, first off, about ‘Is it a good idea to serve alcohol in a student union?’ … And in addition, if you do think it’s a good idea, we need a really robust business plan about where that would be located physically in Coffman and what the profit and loss from it would look like.
In your view, is there a place for alcohol sales at Coffman?
You know, I’m of two minds about it. I would say I haven’t decided yet on my view on that. There really are pros and cons, and I think we need a robust discussion about what would make sense for that. Frankly, much like the tobacco-smoking ban, I think the community needs to decide collectively what the right thing to do is.
The University recently submitted a bonding request … for more than $230 million. What are the chances, do you think, that all of that will be met by the state?
Well, I think historically we don’t get all that we ask for, but this will be … a normal bonding year, and the expectation is that it will be a pretty robust bonding bill all in all, and the University should get a good share of that.
In terms of the [TFA] and [CEHD] potential partnership, as you may be aware, that has been a somewhat controversial discussion. … Do you think this [partnership] is a good idea?
I think we need a balanced approach. I think [TFA] has some very positive aspects, and I think having that program at the University in collaboration, cooperation or co-existence … with our other teaching programs would be fine. The ultimate decision on this is [CEHD Dean] Jean Quam’s.
… I understand the reasons that some people are opposed to it, but in the community, there are a lot of people who are in favor of [TFA], so I think a balanced approach is something that makes sense for the University.
We’re coming into a new academic school year. [What are] some of your top priorities for the coming year, and what changes might students see on campus?
It’s a great entering class — once again, the most academically qualified class. We had 43,000 applications for 5,500 spots. It’s a remarkable statement about the [University] and the quality that we have. So, I’m looking forward to engaging with those students.
… I think academically, you’ll see us continue to move towards using technology more effectively in the classroom. You’ll see, I think, more active learning classes. I think you’ll see faculty engaging in those new ways of teaching.
So, [there are] great opportunities for students to get a wonderful education at the [University] and take part in the dramatic range of student life that we have available.