Interview: U of M President Eric Kaler

University of Minnesota President Kaler looks back on student life, forward to Artificial Intelligence innovations

A portrait of University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler leaning against a pillar.
University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler outside Northrop Auditorium

photos by Ackerman + Gruber

In 2011, Eric Kaler became just the second alum to be named president of the University of Minnesota—another way of saying he’s the second president to know Dinkytown as both a student and administrator. We sat down with Kaler to chat about his old apartments, the path that led him to his current position, and the role of artificial intelligence in the future of education. Note: This interview was conducted before Kaler announced he will resign on July 1, 2019.

Do you ever drive past your old student apartment and think about your 25-year-old self?

I do! I lived in two places. When I first arrived, I lived at 600 University Avenue SE, which [today] is apparently—at least from the outside—identical to the building I lived in 40 years ago. I keep meaning to drive by and ask to look at an apartment, but I never made time to do that. It’s across from the restaurant Alma, which is my favorite restaurant in the Twin Cities. It was not there in 1978. It was a very different neighborhood. Then, when Karen and I got married, we lived at 810 Thornton—that sort of brutalist high rise that is still there.

What was 25-year-old President Kaler like?

I was skinnier, that’s for sure, and I had browner and longer hair. You know, it’s an interesting philosophical point of view, whether you’re actually the same person as you grow older. I think that I am. I was interested in people and interested in education and interested in science, and I’m still that way 40 years later. I worked hard. I had advisors who expected high performances, and I spent a lot of hours in the lab, that’s for sure.

As a grad student, were you interested in administration?

It certainly wasn’t my aspiration at the time. But I always worked in parallel. I was involved in student government in high school and undergrad, so I always had a governance management side, but I was very true to being an academic. I actually wanted to be a researcher. My goal was to be a professor and do research and teach, but the administrative side was always working over here. I did them in parallel for a long time.

You have 10 patents. Which one makes you most proud?

Probably the first one, which speaks to a way of combining different kinds of molecules that have opposite electrical charges. Those opposites attract, and then those molecules create interesting structures that can be useful when dispersed in water. Those are called vesicles, and we figured out how to create them in ways that haven’t been fully appreciated.

How did being a first-generation college student inform the way you think about college and its gatekeepers?

It continues to focus me on two things. I was fortunate enough to attend the California Institute of Technology with a lot of scholarships, and the idea of being able to access an excellent program is really important to me. That’s why the balance here is always about access to excellent education. Excellent educations cost money, so that’s why the state is so important in what we do.

What is your favorite part of your job?

Most favorite parts are dealing with our excellent students. We have incredibly creative students who are doing wonderful things. I love visiting our departments and seeing what they’re doing. I visited the Department of Medicinal Chemistry yesterday, and they are just remarkable people working on exciting problems. Being part of that, seeing that, and enabling that in other people is rewarding.

A portrait of University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler standing outside on some steps.

And least favorite?

Oh, just dealing with critics of the university who have criticisms based on a lack of knowledge or a willful ignorance about how things work at the university. You can’t do this job if you let them bother you very much. It would be not a very human reaction to say that they don’t get you frustrated.

What’s your stance on treating athletes like employees of the school and paying them?

Well, I think that would be a mistake. There really isn’t a way to do that that makes any sense. The NCAA was established to allow students who are athletic to represent their school in competition against students at other schools. End of story. That’s what the NCAA was designed to do, to provide opportunities for those students to compete in a level playing field.

If we started treating them as employees, then they are professional athletes who happen to be wearing school colors. And to me, that’s fundamentally different. If you want to see a college-aged professional athlete playing their sport, then you can go watch a game in the NBA D-League or you can go watch minor-league baseball. There are ways that you can do that. So, I’m not in favor of that.

What about all that money made from the sales of licensed merchandise?

In the so-called NIL [names, images, and likenesses] cases, at the end of the day there might be a way for schools that market items that reflect player properties, for those players to benefit from the royalties of that merchandise. There is probably a fair way to sort that out, but once you start calling them employees with a salary, and how you’re going to bid for players based on their skill, then that’s a professional league. If somebody wants to set up a professional league for professional competition in a sport, go ahead.

Which U of M tradition are you most fond of?

Karen, my wife, and I love Goldy. We have the best mascot in the country. Goldy has a lot of friends, and the people involved are very interesting and engaging people. That kind of tradition around a mascot, while it may seem silly in some sense, actually is a meaningful part of school spirit.

You received your bachelor’s degree 40 years ago. How do you imagine higher education will be different 40 years from now?

First, look at what has not changed. What has not changed is a faculty member working with students to learn. That person-to-person action. It has been augmented enormously by tech, which enables better communication. I don’t see that changing 40 years from now. I think probably the biggest groundbreaking change will be artificial intelligence. I think as machines get smarter and smarter, the opportunity for a student to learn from—to get knowledge from, be tutored by—a machine will be a game changer, and will be a way people augment their experience. But there is something fundamentally hardwired in us as human beings to want to interact with other human beings, and I don’t see people not wanting to come together to do that.

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