The Minnesota Daily sat down with University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler Tuesday for its monthly Kickin’ It With Kaler interview.
This month, Kaler also fielded questions from students and Daily sports reporters.
Kaler discussed Tubby Smith’s firing — a nearly $3 million buyout — in-state tuition for undocumented students and his final budgetary expectations.
The University fired Tubby Smith last Monday. What was your initial reaction?
First, to thank him for what he’s done for the program. He’s certainly made important contributions, but I also think that the program was a little bit stuck and not as competitive in the Big Ten as our fan base would like to see. I wish him luck in what comes next for him.
Who was involved in the decision to fire Tubby Smith?
The athletic director makes the decisions on coaches, but [athletics director Norwood Teague] certainly consulted with me before making the final decision.
How does the University justify paying more than $3 million to fire a coach?
Well, the buyouts in big-time college athletics are unfortunately part of the business. I think it’s a challenge for institutions to pay these, but unfortunately they’re a fact of life.
The University’s athletics department recently shared nine contract extensions it gave to coaches privately last summer. What was your role in these extensions?
I had approved all of those extensions. Again, they were recommended by the athletic department, and I OK’d them. And again, the report was that these were done privately, and what happened was that the transition of leadership in the athletics department fell between the cracks and weren’t publicized as they normally are done, but there was no intention to hide them. It’s kind of silly to think that you could hide a coach extension contract because a coach shows up to coach. People will notice.
What are your thoughts that the athletics department must pay him more than $3 million when the department already has to borrow from the University general fund to balance its budget?
The University’s athletic budget is about $80 million. It receives about $25 million a year from the Big Ten. … It receives substantial revenue from ticket sales and other medium. So the athletics budget is able to support expenditures for athletics. If there’s a cash flow issue, they can borrow money from central funds, but it’s a loan that is paid back.
Last week, Rep. Gene Pelowski, [DFL-Winona], said that Tubby’s buyout could hurt the U’s chances of receiving state funds for athletics facilities in the future. What do you think about this?
The amount of state money and tuition money that flows to athletics is $1.6 million. It’s decreased from $6.8 million in fiscal year 2003, so the amount of money that flows to athletics from the central budget has decreased dramatically in the last 10 years.
It’s dedicated to help support athletics facilities, and again, the great bulk of athletics revenue comes from sources that aren’t state or tuition.
It was recently reported that the University lost $16,000 in alcohol sales in its first season at TCF Bank Stadium. Did this surprise you?
I thought we were on target to break even. We wound up a little bit negative. There were lots of startup costs associated with the alcohol sales; obviously those costs will not reoccur next year. Again, when you start doing something like that, the startup costs can limit your ability to make money in the first period, but you’ll do better in later years.
Do those numbers change how the University approaches alcohol sales at Mariucci and Williams?
We’ve asked the Legislature to let us complete our two-year experiment at TCF, which was our original agreement with them. Then we’ll evaluate how that works — both the pros and cons in terms of fan experience, and then we’ll evaluate what we might do in Mariucci and Williams.
Gov. Mark Dayton and two legislators have proposals to allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition and receive grants and scholarships. As you know, the Legislature can’t force the University to act, but the bills suggest the University adopt a policy. What do you think about it?
I’m in favor of that policy, and if that law is passed, I will recommend to the regents that we do that. But as you noted, it is a regents decision.
What challenges could the University possibly face in adopting this policy?
I don’t think we’d have any challenges. Should we decide to do it, we could implement it.
Rep. Ryan Winkler, [DFL-Golden Valley], has suggested the state should be allowed to make funds to the University contingent on certain conditions. What are your thoughts on the Legislature wanting more say in how the University operates?
An important foundation of the University is that we are constitutionally autonomous. We have existed longer than the state of Minnesota has existed. So that limits what the state can require us to do. Having said that, I’m certain that the legislators and I have the same goals in holding the University accountable and having the University run efficiently and be as effective as it can be at what it does.
This week and next, the House Higher Education committee will discuss and decide how much money to appropriate to the University. After months of lobbying, what are your final expectations?
I think we’re in pretty good shape. In both the House and the Senate we’ve had good hearings, and we’ve been as open and transparent as we can be. We’ve given them a ton of information about the value of the University, and I’m optimistic that we’ll come out in good shape.
How is the University prepared to respond if it doesn’t receive the full amount requested?
Unfortunately, the public disinvestment in higher ed has caused costs to increase for students and families, and we’ve been pretty clear with the policy makers about that connection. But I still remain hopeful that the state will support us.
From the students:
The University’s presence influences so much development in the surrounding area. How are you involved in ensuring there is good development for the campus community and surrounding neighborhoods?
We start with having high standards for our own development. We’re careful about where we build things and how we build them. We’re active in community engagement — we have two people in community relations whose job is to represent the University in all the communities that we neighbor. We’re key partners in the University District Alliance, which is developing a vision for the University district.
We’re one player, but the students who live nearby are citizens of those neighborhoods, and I hope they are engaged as well.
After 15 years without a grocery store in the University District, would you consider supporting a student co-op that a coalition of student groups is currently trying to put together?
I certainly would support the creation of a grocery store in the U district. I think that would make the quality of life better. But I’d look carefully at the business plans. Grocery stores are tough businesses economically, and you want to be sure that even as a co-op or a nonprofit that you have a robust business plan; making sure you have the population density and the customer base to meet your business needs is important.
Anything else to add?
I started my office hours for students last week, which was great. I had several groups come by to see me, and I’ll take this chance to advertise … if you’d like to talk to me, you can find my office hours schedule on my website.