Our View: UMR will lose a champion when Kaler goes

July 18, 2018 GMT

The University of Minnesota Rochester has been around for about 12 years.

Eric Kaler has been president of the University of Minnesota for seven of those years and has championed the innovative (read: experimental) Rochester campus throughout his tenure.

There have been lean years for UMR enrollment and more promising years; “it appears to be in growth mode now. It’s a tiny project, just a speck on Goldy Gopher’s back amid the totality of what the University of Minnesota is about. Systemwide, it has 44,500 students, about 71 percent of them in the Twin Cities. Rochester has fewer than a thousand students. It was only five years ago that it produced its first graduating class.

Though plans are in the works for building a campus, a master plan for the U of M that’s in the final phase of drafting calls for only modest enrollment growth here.

So Kaler’s announcement Friday that he plans to retire at the end of the 2018-19 year is reason to look ahead as well as appreciate his contributions. The U of M has enjoyed a period of moderate growth, fiscal restraint and refocusing of mission during his tenure. He’s proven to be a prodigious fundraiser and he’ll continue that for a year after he steps down on July 1 next year.

There have been personnel debacles along the way, including the departure of former Athletic Director Norwood Teague in 2015 amid sexual harassment allegations, and Kaler has had his critics at the Capitol. As he said Friday, “my tenure already exceeds the national average,” which says as much about the fraught demands of the top job at a major university as it does about Kaler.

“This is an incredibly demanding job … and as proud and confident of my contributions and ability as I am, I also know that the University will benefit from a fresh perspective.”

This is always true, in every line of work. But it likely will give UMR boosters in Rochester reason for pause as well. UMR has a new chancellor, Lori Carrell, who took over in February from the founding chancellor, Stephen Lehmkuhle, who shaped the mission and vision for the branch campus.

Carrell clearly is committed to and energized by that mission, and Kaler and the Board of Regents remain committed and engaged. Though Rochester isn’t represented on the board for the first time in many years, the Regents met in Rochester in March and expressed support for what’s happening here. UMR recently confirmed that it will lease space in One Discovery Square, the Destination Medical Center building going up on Second Avenue Southwest, and preliminary work continues in the area where UMR hopes to develop a campus.

Still, if change at the top gives a “fresh perspective,” it also means UMR and every other unit of the University will need to make a fresh, persuasive case for what they do, how it contributes to the broader institutional mission and also how it makes sense for the bottom line.

Rochester and UMR have a great case to make to whoever takes over Kaler’s chair in Morrill Hall. It’s not too early to start thinking that through.