Kaler on Obama, unions, STEM and performance measurements

Here are some more bits from the interview that University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler had with reporters Friday:

On President Obama’s calls for higher-ed reform:

“I don’t mind the federal attention. I think we need to see the specifics of what the president might propose. … It has been very undefined so far. But it does seem to me remarkable that a federal response to reductions of state aid at higher education — which of course is a national problem, and not just a Minnesota problem — would be to reduce federal student aid. That makes my head hurt a little bit, which means probably the real plan that comes out will not be that.

I do think that tuition increases are a profound concern, but it’s not realistic for the federal government to say to a university, “OK, your state has cut your funding, therefore you can’t raise tuition. You’ll just have to find a way to operate with a whole lot less money.” There aren’t many businesses that I can think of that could do that.”

On why he didn’t sign a joint petition in recognition of a grad-student union, which would have bypassed the need for an election:

“I think the democratic way to address this issue is by an election, not by a card-collection effort.”

On Sen. Thomas Bakk’s letter warning him (or the U) not to make misleading statements about unions on the U’s Web site:

“I have asked our team to look again at all that we have on the Web and in print on this issue and make sure that we are absolutely fair and accurate in what we represent.”

On the state’s recent tying of a small amount U funding to achievement of some performance measures:

“It creates an interesting conundrum (considering the U’s legal autonomy from the state). There was quite a bit of pushback from the regents on approval of those metrics. And I respect that point of view that autonomy is critical to the future and health of the university. But at the same time, I do understand legislators’ desires to see what they’re paying for here, and to put metrics in place. I think there’s a middle ground.”

On the U’s enrollment goals and educational focus:

“Our commitment to science, technology and math disciplines is what employers and employees value. Students graduating in those fields find jobs. We’ll be adding 1,000 slots for students in the STEM fields and nursing over the next three years to respond to demand from qualified students and the need from Minnesota industry.”

On how state funding for the U has changed:

“When I was a graduate student here, state support of the university’s budget was more than 40 percent. This year, the state support will be about 18-19 percent of our overall budget.”

On how involved he is in increasing economic access to the U:

“I’m spending about 20 percent of my time working on philanthropic initiatives, mostly for scholarships, to ensure that as state funding continues to fall, we will remain accessible to students of all economic backgrounds.”

He declined to say whether he thought regent Steve Sviggum faced a potential conflict of interest with his outside job, saying it was an issue for the Board of Regents to decide.