U President Eric Kaler calls for year-round school calendar, employee raise in first State of the University address

/ 1 March 2012 / jennifer

Mila Koumpilova, Pioneer Press, March 1, 2012 –

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler said in his first State of the University address Thursday that he plans to explore a switch to a rare year-round academic calendar and give all employees a 2.5 percent raise.

Kaler said that except for the salary increases and a boost to student aid, his budget for the upcoming year will freeze costs.

In his speech, titled “Balances,” he called for a “culture change” to ensure the university functions more efficiently and more cheaply, vowing to eliminate “extremely stupid procedures” that swell bureaucracy and to scrutinize the university’s hundreds of academic and administrative centers.

“We absolutely have to move to a more nimble and responsive way of doing our administrative work, and we have to do it at a lower cost,” he said.

Kaler, the second alum to take over the top job at the U, started as president eight months ago.

After his address, he fielded sometimes sharply worded questions from students and faculty. They asked about his salary, about his commitment to reining in administrative costs and about a budget model that puts colleges in competition over limited dollars, which professor Naomi Scheman called “profoundly anti-intellectual.”

In his address, he highlighted themes of his 2013 budget, still a work in progress: holding the line on administrative costs and the across-the-board salary increases. The raise announcement, on the heels of three years of stagnant pay for many university employees, yielded scattered applause at the Coffman Memorial Union Theater on the U’s East Bank campus in Minneapolis.

Kaler also announced a $21 million pool for academic investments, to be doled out competitively among departments.

Previously, Kaler has said he is looking at a 3.5 percent increase in tuition for the coming year.

Kaler also stressed that as the U examines ways to reduce costs, keeping tuition increases in check will not be possible without state support.

“The fantasy that the university could somehow advance its mission and hold the line on tuition as state support dwindles is just that – a fantasy,” he said.

But perhaps the most dramatic proposal was Kaler’s interest in considering a “remarkably revised,” year-round academic calendar. He said such a three-semester calendar would allow more students to graduate in three years and increase annual tuition revenue.

Some faculty expressed concern that a school with a year-round calendar would rush students along, in line with a recent focus on graduating students faster.

“This is a system that doesn’t really tolerate failure and error and experimentation,” said professor Eva von Dassow.

Chris Cramer, head of the Faculty Consultative Committee, which released a report on the issue last year, said such a change would give students and professors options and make for a more efficient use of facilities. But the transition would require a major logistical adjustment.

Year-round calendars remain a rarity nationally, Cramer said.

“We identified one or two other schools that have it,” he said.

Some students said after the speech that they had hoped to hear more specifics on reducing administrative costs. Students such as senior Shannon Nicholson questioned if a raise for all employees, including administrators, really holds the line on those costs.

“(Kaler) immediately points a finger at the state, but the university also needs to take responsibility for reining in tuition,” Nicholson said.

But Cramer, who introduced Kaler at Coffman, praised the address.

“It was a very realistic speech,” Cramer said. “He didn’t sugarcoat anything. He outlined a strong and ambitious vision.”

Mila Koumpilova can be reached at 651-228-2171. Follow her at twitter.com/MilaPiPress.


To read the State of the University speech, go to bit.ly/Kalerspeech.