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University president in transition phase

MINNEAPOLIS -- Eric Kaler took a test to find out more about himself, just like new University of Minnesota students did this summer.

What he discovered likely was no surprise: he is good at setting high goals, is analytical and shows signs of being a good learner. They all are good traits for the new University of Minnesota president.

Kaler revealed his test results in front of a convocation for 5,300 new students. And he told them something that fits him, too: "You're moving into a new world, leaving behind some great stuff, but transitioning into a spectacular phase of your life. "

This phase of the 54-year-old Kaler's life is running the university where he received his chemical engineering doctorate.

As he starts his new job, at the top of his priority list is making sure the university excels.

"We need to be absolutely great at what we do," Kaler said in an interview. "And if we can't be great at what we do, we need to ask ourselves seriously if we want to be doing it."

That appears to be a theme of the university.

"I think he is just what we needed at this point in time," university Regent Clyde Allen of Moorhead said. "I think he is somebody who will focus on a limited number of critical issues in the program side."

Allen said Kaler's job will be further defining the university.

"We can't be everything to everyone," Allen said. "We need to focus."

Kaler returned to Minnesota to start his job July 1, after being vice president at Stony Brook University in New York. He replaces the retired Robert Bruininks.

He is based in the Twin Cities and has visited Morris and Crookston campuses, with the university's Duluth and Rochester facilities on his to-do list after his official inauguration this month.

Kaler said he is impressed with leaders of the four campuses outside of the Twin Cities and foresees no major changes.

Part of Kaler's job will be communicating the good that comes out of the university, he said, especially important as he lobbies Minnesota lawmakers to reverse the downward trend of state higher education funding.

"You wouldn't have a soybean industry in Minnesota if it wasn't for the University of Minnesota," he said. "You wouldn't have a turkey industry in Minnesota if it wasn't for the University of Minnesota."

Now, he said, the university is conducting what he called "groundbreaking" research on why bees are disappearing around the country. Without bees to pollinate crops, agriculture is threatened.

Part of that communication is to convince Minnesotans in general and legislators in particular that their money is well spent.

"When I hear people talking about we are bloated or a waste of money, that makes me mad," Kaler said.

However, he quickly added, "I am not satisfied with the status quo" and continued examination is needed to make sure the university does not have a top-heavy administration.

Kaler defended his $610,000 annual salary, saying the regents set it without his input and it is in the middle range of the Big 10 conference.

"We are the fourth largest institution in the country; I don't have the fourth largest salary," Kaler added.

Allen also rejected complaints about the president's salary, which is about the same as was paid Bruininks. "I would have no trouble justifying an even higher salary as our ... productivity increases."

Overall, it will be a little while longer before Kaler begins to suggest changes.

"I am giving myself sort of the first 100 days or so on the job to listen," he said. "After that is over, you will hear as we go forward strategies and tactics to look at the issues I think are important. I am not a very patient person. ... We will move forward things as expeditiously as we can."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.