The Minnesota Daily sat down with University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler on a snowy Monday afternoon for its monthly Kickin’ It with Kaler interview.
Kaler discussed a range of topics, including demographic changes in the state and the University’s 2016-2017 biennial budget request.
You took a trip last week to Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea. How was your trip, and why did you travel there?
It was very pleasant. ... The president is a University of Minnesota Ph.D. economist, but the principal reason to go was to speak at a Global HR Forum. I was on a panel with four other university presidents ...
So it was a really great opportunity to talk about the future of higher education and to listen to some other points of view. So that was the principle reason to go. … I got a lot done in the two days I was there.
What were some of the topics regarding the future of higher education?
Well, [they] really were how are universities going to look going into the future. And my point of view is that they’re going to look a lot like the University of Minnesota is looking now and is planning to look.
… I think we are going to use technology in very creative ways, but I still think students are going to want to come to a university — make that transition from adolescence to young adults.
Many students and Native American groups gathered at TCF Bank Stadium last week to protest the Washington Redskins name. How do you think the protest went, and does the University have any plans to continue to show support of the team’s name change?
I think the protests were very well-attended and very well-managed. … I’m very proud that there were no arrests, no damages; it was very respectful and very thoughtful. … I think the message got across that this is an offensive name.
We’re clearly eager to continue to have conversations with anybody who will listen about the need for that name change …
The University recently announced plans to pay a cost-of-attendance stipend to the school’s student-athletes, totaling over $2,000. Why did the University decide to do this, and where will the funding for these stipends come from?
We haven’t actually formally decided to do that. The NCAA is allowing the Big Five athletic conferences to have some more freedom around providing assets for athletes. We’re, of course, interested in providing the best experience for all of our students, including our student-athletes.
So this rule change will let us provide some additional funding, and the details for that will be worked out at the NCAA conference in January — and following that — so we’re not able to implement it yet. And it will come from the athletics budget, as all student-athlete scholarships do now.
In the University’s 2016-17 biennial budget request, a “vibrant communities” initiative would promote economic development for the state’s communities and develop more opportunities for students to get engaged. Why was this request included, and what types of research and partnerships would be formed?
Well, we were interested in being sure that we were responsive to the needs of greater Minnesota, as well as the urban area that we’re located. So it really is an opportunity for us to invest in several areas.
One is mining in northeast Minnesota. We believe that University research around the water reuse, water management and mineral extraction could be very useful to helping that industry thrive and have a smaller environmental impact.
We want to put service learning and community engagement activities into communities around the state. We think this is going to benefit several things — it will help us close the K-12 achievement gap, it helps us with research on nutrition, it helps us with community engagement around immigrant populations — new American populations — so that they help our society grow and become a part of the Minnesota of the future.
So we think there’s a lot of community impact and economic impact that would come from supporting this research.
How could last week’s changes at the state Legislature affect funding levels for the University?
Well, I think that remains to be seen. We’ve had good conversations with new leadership on both sides of the aisle over the years, and I think the ability for the University to continue to talk about the state helping the U be affordable for Minnesotans is an important thing for [legislators] to hear.
I think the idea of a healthy Minnesota, which is the second component of our request, will be attractive. … Again, these are elements that are compelling and, I think, are smart investments by the people of Minnesota in their great research University.
In recent years, federal funding levels for University research — including backing from the National Institutes of Health — have remained flat. How do you think has this has affected University research, and what is the University doing to respond to this?
Our faculty continue to compete very aggressively for these funds. But, in fact, it is more difficult to maintain and grow in this very constrained federal environment.
Success requires a very well-prepared proposal. And the MnDRIVE initiative, for example, is a great way for us to use some state resources to help build strength in these areas that will become much more competitive for federal funding.
But make no mistake, it is a difficult time and I think one in the history of the country that will be very regrettable, because our competitors around the world are investing in research, and they will pass us if we keep on our current path.
In the coming decades, demographic and health care changes in the state could mean a shortage of doctors and more citizens who will need health care. Are those predictions worrisome to you, and what is the University doing to address this?
… We are aware of these changing demographics, and in addition to doctors, there’s going to be a need for health care workers of all professions. And this is exactly the kind of cohort that we want to grow the “healthy Minnesota” initiative.
And we also want to have outreach in greater Minnesota. We’re proposing six clinics that would be sites for training for our students, and also delivering care to Minnesotans, so we’re on it.
And those six sites, where will those be; will they be scattered across the state?
They will be in areas where there’s need. So there will [be] both greater Minnesota sites and urban area sites.
What kind of support and acknowledgment does the University give to the friends and family of students who die, and do you believe that the University offers enough?
… You know, student death is just a tragedy all the way around, for everybody involved. We work hard to provide counseling and a supportive environment for students who know a student who has passed away.
We obviously offer condolences to family, and my understanding is that the infrastructure around this is actually good and meets the needs of students who are touched by that tragedy.
Last week, the University announced it is suing four major U.S. wireless carriers over alleged patent infringement. How did this patent infringement occur, and will the University being pursuing steps to ensure this doesn’t happen again in the future?
Well, it’s an ongoing legal case, and there’s not very much I can tell you about it. I will say that we are committed to protecting the intellectual property of our faculty — that’s why we’ve embarked on this case.
Colleges across the nation have recently seen increased numbers of computer and data breaches. Have there been any recent or significant threats to the University’s security, and what is the University doing to combat this?
Universities, like all big organizations, are bombarded daily by hacker attacks at various levels of sophistication. We have people whose job it is to make sure that our data is safe and our networks are not compromised. We are aware of the threats, and we think we are taking appropriate action to protect ourselves.