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Enter the Scientist

In July, after eight years as University of Minnesota president, Eric Kaler will step down and return to his chemical engineering roots.

Bee researchers with President Eric Kaler/Photograph by Patrick O'Leary

Upresident Eric Kaler, dressed in a white business shirt lassoed by a maroon and gold striped tie, rummages through the enormous, stuffed bookshelf that anchors his office. He looks past bobbleheads, award plaques, knickknack chickens, and family photos, in search of a particular book. “I’m sure I still have it,” he says half to himself, his voice as warm and homey as cinnamon toast. “Well, this is embarrassing.”

The hulking shelf is organized by subject, Kaler says, but the topics seem to range all the way from electrodynamics to physical chemistry. He won’t actually find the errant book until after our interview; he’ll have the U’s assistant director of public relations email me a snapshot of it: Process Systems Analysis and Control.

This is the chemical engineering textbook Kaler used to teach his first class, when he was a 24-year-old Ph.D. student at the U, back in 1980. “I was going to be the youngest vice president in the history of Exxon,” says Kaler, who was a bright star in the chemical engineering field. That was before he made a fateful detour.

“It was really very emotionally satisfying to teach that class.”
University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler

One day, his thesis advisor, H. Ted Davis, the formidable head of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, strode into Kaler’s lab. “I was a third-year graduate student, and so I knew that was either a really good thing or a really bad thing,” Kaler recalls. 

Davis asked if Kaler would teach a class for a professor who was ill. He accepted. “It was really very emotionally satisfying to teach that class,” Kaler says. “So, I said to myself, I’d like to do this. Maybe I can get a job as a faculty member.”

Kaler is notably happy when discussing his days as a scientist and teacher, more so than when he’s talking about the U’s budget, the perception of bloated administrative costs, the fact that the politics of higher education are tougher now than they used to be, or the various scandals—“narrow passages,” he calls them—he’s contended with as U president since 2011, especially in the medical research and sports programs.

At the press conference last July where he announced his departure, Kaler explained that he’d accomplished most of what he’d set out to do and that it was, in his words, time to go. 

While some may think Kaler hasn’t been P.T. Barnum when it comes to panache in touting his accomplishments, he’s leaving a positive legacy. He raised the U’s rankings, partnered with the state legislature to increase research funding, smoothed the track for ideas and innovations to reach businesses and the state, forged a new academic medical partnership, held in-state tuition increases to below the rate of inflation, cut more than $90 million in annual administrative costs, and launched a system-wide campaign to address sexual misconduct.

“I think exceptionally highly of Eric as a human being.”
Regent Chair David McMillan

“Despite challenging public funding situations, Eric will leave this place in a better standing than it was when he got here,” says Board of Regents Chair David McMillan (B.A. ’83, J.D. ’87). “And that can be measured in an academic medicine space, it can be measured in grants, it can be measured in the fact that we’re the 8th largest public research university in the country, it can be measured in the rankings of individual schools. Those are places where what you can see is a manifestation of Eric’s focus on, we’re about academic excellence.

“I think exceptionally highly of Eric as a human being,” adds McMillan. “He’s a genuine individual. He cares deeply about this institution. He loves it and he’s a pleasure to work with.”

After leaving office, Kaler will spend a year fundraising on behalf of the U’s $4 billion Driven campaign, which he helped launch in 2011. Then he will return to the U faculty in his beloved chemical engineering department. “I do look forward to reactivating that part of my brain that can solve partial differential equations and maybe deoxygenating my political brain a little bit,” he said at the press conference.

KALER WAS BORN in Burlington, Vermont, in 1956, an only child. His father was a self-educated Air Force mechanic and the family moved a lot. A first-generation college graduate, Kaler earned his bachelor’s degree in 1978 from the California Institute of Technology. After finishing his Ph.D. at the U in 1982, he worked as an associate professor of chemical engineering at the University of Washington. From there, he moved to the University of Delaware, where he was dean of the College of Engineering. Then, he went to Stony Brook University in New York and served as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs.

Along the way, Kaler became an expert in surfactant compounds, which, put simply, allow disparate substances to work together, such as when salt dissolves in water. He holds 10 patents. In 2007, he coedited a book called Giant Micelles: Properties and Applications. These accomplishments were part of the reason the U’s Board of Regents unanimously selected him in 2010—from a field of 148 candidates—to become the U’s 16th president.

Kaler met his wife, Karen, with whom he has two sons, in 1979, while on a summer internship at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. A Nashville native, Karen Fults was a graduate student in art at the University of Tennessee and working in a residence hall. When Kaler checked in, she accidentally overcharged him. She couldn’t simply give him a refund; he had to wait for a check. “Every time he saw me, he would say, ‘You know when that check’s coming?’ I thought he was just a guy who was so relaxed about money because he was so nice about it. But really, he was flirting and then we had something to talk about.”

Eric and Karen Kaler at the U's 2015 Homecoming parade.
Photograph by Chris Cooper

The two were married six months later and lived near St. Anthony Main in Minneapolis—they will move back to the neighborhood after decamping from the official residence—while Kaler finished his Ph.D. and Karen worked as a graphic designer. (She’s published two children’s books and is working on two more.) When Kaler decided to teach that first class at the U, Karen knew he’d like it. “An academic life, I just think is wonderful.” 

Though Karen Kaler isn’t paid by the U, attending events and hosting parties and generally serving as an ambassador is a full-time job. Where Eric—a self-professed data guy—can sometimes be perceived as aloof, Karen is warm and vivacious. “Somebody early on said, ‘Well, you are just so normal,’” Karen recalls. “I said, ‘Thank you, you are too!’ Because I’m very approachable, people think they know him because they know me.”

The thing people don’t realize about Kaler, she says, “is that his weakness is that he cares too much.” During a recent spate of cell phone robberies on the Twin Cities campus, she says he couldn’t sleep.

It’s no wonder, then, when asked about his greatest disappointment as president, Kaler points to the case of Dan Markingson, a 27-year-old screenwriter who killed himself in 2004 while in a poorly managed clinical drug study at the U. Though the death happened before Kaler’s watch, the case was mishandled for years as the U deflected blame. “When I arrived, there was a lot of evidence, which I reviewed, saying this is a closed deal,” he says. “But I eventually became persuaded that yes, we really need to look at this. And the result that came back was incredibly disappointing and dismaying. That took too long for me to address. I should have gotten a third party to come in and vet the situation sooner than I did.” Kaler apologized in person to Markingson’s mother for a tragedy that seems to genuinely pain him still.

On the other hand, and perhaps thanks to lessons learned, when in 2015 U Athletic Director Norwood Teague was found to have inappropriately touched and sent graphic texts to female coworkers, Kaler acted swiftly. “He was separated from the University within two weeks,” he says. “And we brought in a third party to thoroughly look through the attitude and culture in athletics.” With the hiring of Director of Athletics Mark Coyle, Kaler is confident the U’s challenges in athletics are being carefully monitored.

THE PART OF THE JOB Kaler has enjoyed most over the past seven and a half years is interacting with students. “There is so much enthusiasm, opportunity, ambition, and promise in those young people that’s fun to help develop and grow,” he says. Early on, he launched monthly “office hours,” where students can talk about anything they want. “Most of the student office hours are very positive and fun. Occasionally they are treated as a visit to the complaint department, but that’s OK, too.”

“He lights up with students.”
Jay Weiner

The U, in Kaler’s view, is a “big, messy, complex” place, where not everybody gets everything they want. “That’s OK. That’s part of the tension of being a dynamic organization.”

Trish Palermo (B.A. ’18), who was president of the Minnesota Student Association before going to work in D.C. for Congresswoman Betty McCollum, says Kaler took student concerns seriously. “He was very responsive on the issue of sexual assault and also on DACA,” or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. “It meant a lot to students to see him take such a strong stance on that topic.”

“He lights up with students,” says Jay Weiner, who was Kaler’s speechwriter for seven years before departing for the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Weiner tells the story of a teaching assistant who came in with a physical disability. He was a veteran working toward his Ph.D. But in the building where he taught, the elevator kept breaking down, making it tough to get to classes and the restroom. “He told all of this to Eric. I’m not sure whether Eric got angry or started to cry, but he said, ‘This is crazy.’” Kaler recalls the visit and says he went to University Services himself to ensure the elevator was fixed tout de suite.

Weiner and Kaler enjoyed a close working relationship, with Weiner calling his former boss smart, a good listener, selfless, a problem solver, and a delegator who trusts the people who work for him. “I like to say he was a chemical engineer who never gave speeches and I was a sports writer who never wrote speeches,” Weiner says. “We were a perfect match.” But there is a reason the story about the veteran came from Weiner and not Kaler. “It’s a struggle to get him to talk about himself. He gets choked up. He thinks personal stories are maudlin.”

What Kaler likes is information. “Most of his speeches are data driven,” Weiner says.

After he completes the president’s job and the year of fundraising, Kaler will again work in a lab. “I’m too old to realistically start up a laboratory on my own again,” he says. “But this is a field that I remain interested in. I can contribute. I have some eligibility left.” He’ll also get back to the classroom. “The irony is that as you move up, what you have to give up is teaching. I miss that.”

THE BOARD OF REGENTS began its search for a new president almost as soon as Kaler announced his departure. By the time this magazine goes to press, there may even be finalists.

Kaler is not involved in choosing his successor, but he has some advice. “You have to have a very thick skin,” he says. “You have to have high integrity and a history that will enable the respect of the faculty. You want somebody who has the executive skills of being present and setting an agenda and understanding the importance of hiring really good people. This is a very big and difficult job. That is an understatement.”

Photograph by Patrick O'Leary

He cites changing public attitudes toward higher education as the biggest challenge facing the U. “Most people realize that an educated population and workforce is really important,” he says. “But, funding the mechanism to generate that educated workforce—i.e. the university—is not as easily endorsed by the public for a variety of reasons. Sometimes universities are perceived as too liberal, politically. They are perceived as being wasteful, with too many administrators. That is an urban legend that is really difficult to defeat.”

Come July, these will no longer be Kaler’s problems to address. He’ll still be around cheering on the Gophers, as a diehard fan, but he might wear a little less maroon and gold. “The good news about no longer being president is that the steady stream of maroon wardrobe items entering my house will slow,” he says, only half joking. “We’ve got a lot. I have 105 maroon and gold neckties.”

Jennifer Vogel (B.A. ‘92) is editor of Minnesota Alumni

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