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Kaler: U of M remains strong despite “perfect storm” around higher education

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler says on Friday, Jan. 11, 2013, that if the state provides nearly $43 million, the university can keep tuition from rising for two years. (Don Davis/Forum News Service)

MORRIS -- The University of Minnesota is in the middle of a “perfect storm” for higher education, but remains strong and dedicated to keeping “the public in public education” by working to “bend the curve” of cost increases by reforming programs and making potentially painful cuts, President Eric Kaler said in his second State of the University address Thursday.

In the speech, Kaler called said the scarcity of jobs for graduates has increased public angst about the value of college and led to “nonsense” ideas – like one from Florida that students should pay more for an English degree than an Engineering degree – about how to improve higher education.

“It's easy to toss out so-called 'bold ideas,'” said Kaler. “And – don't get me wrong – we need bold ideas. We need to embrace change, reward innovation, and try new teaching models. But we need ideas that work for the University of Minnesota and for our state. We need to embrace change the Minnesota Way.”

For Kaler, these changes include initiatives to streamline, consolidate, and assess programs across the University as well as work with state leaders to keep tuition costs down with a two year tuition freeze for Minnesota resident undergraduate students.

Over the next 12 months, Kaler proposed revisiting the university's strategic plan, increasing funding for graduate programs while also looking for programs that could be cut, removing barriers for faculty to engage in interdisciplinary research, announcing an employee engagement strategy for university staff, and holding office hours for university students.

At the same time, Kaler backed away from a proposal to switch to a year-round academic calendar, admitting that the barriers for the program were larger that he anticipated. However, the University will be working on a pilot program with the College of Design on the Twin Cities campus to test the idea further.

While his address only specifically mentioned the Morris campus a few times, UMM Chancellor Jacquie Johnson said she was pleased at Kaler's recognition of UMM as a reference point for arts and culture.

“Certainly this campus is a cultural center for west central Minnesota, there's no question about that,” said Johnson. “I like that he recognizes that and we help him when he is answering questions about the value of the humanities.”

Johnson also said Kaler's plan to look into a three semester academic year dovetails with work already being done at UMM to “ramp up the support” for students to do undergraduate research and internships in the summer on campus.

“We do know that students who study during the summer, remain engaged during the summer and more likely to be maintained as undergraduates,” said Johnson. “So I think it's compatible about what we're talking about here – maybe we can pilot something.”