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TOUGH CHOICES: U of M president visits Crookston campus

CROOKSTON -- University of Minnesota system President Eric W. Kaler spoke at the area's branch campus today and promised change -- some of which will not be popular.

Eric Kaler
New University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler appears before the U of M Board of Regents in a question and answer session, before the vote to nominate him as the new President of the U of M in Minneapolis, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2010. (AP Photo/The Minneapolis Star Tribune, Richard Sennott)

CROOKSTON -- University of Minnesota system President Eric W. Kaler spoke at the area's branch campus today and promised change -- some of which will not be popular.

The Legislature has cut higher education funding, he said, so there will be programs that are "impossible" to sustain. "We're going to focus on things you could do well and do even better," he said, "and we're going to make hard decisions about things we don't do very well."

At the same time, he said, he'll work to reframe higher education in the minds of state leaders as an investment in Minnesota's economy. He said he'll be asking the community to help deliver that message.

Fifty-six days into the job, he professed that he's still very much the newbie; his last job was at Stony Brook (N.Y.) University where he was the provost. The visit to Crookston is part of an effort to learn more about the University of Minnesota system and the communities it serves. Today, he met with state lawmakers from the region and spoke to a crowd that included business and government leaders.

By fall, he'll announce the process for refocusing the system, he told the Herald.

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Tough choices

Kaler, a chemical engineer by training, spoke in bluntly practical terms.

When someone in the crowd asked his thoughts on his predecessor Robert H. Bruininks' goal of having at least half of students in the system graduate having studied abroad, Kaler said the usual things about students being prepared for a world where nations are more connected.

He then said some study-abroad experiences are more useful than others. Spending a summer in Paris or Florence is "cool," he said, but it's not like working in a pediatric clinic in Thailand, as one UMC student he spoke to did.

When another person in the crowd asked about the ag education program, he said the program had 27 graduates in the lpast 10 years and it wasn't sustainable.

The program, graduates of which teach agriculture to middle and high-school students, is being phased out along with two others -- organizational psychology and hotel, restaurant and tourism management -- by the end of 2012-2013, said UMC Chancellor Charles H. Casey.

Tough times

This year is the third straight year UMC has had to cut its budget because of state funding shortfalls. Enrollment, though, continues to grow. The final numbers for fall aren't in yet, but Casey expected it would top last year's 2,528, marking the fourth straight year of growth.

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The pressure on tuition has grown throughout the system as the universities pass costs onto students.

Kaler said his other priority is to ensure higher education is accessible to all Minnesotans. "We cannot step away from the fact that an educated population is a public good," he said. "We are a better society when we have educated citizens. We make better decisions. We make better investments. We make a better life."

Higher education, he said, can't only be "for children from families of wealth."

Reach Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 248; or send email to ttran@gfherald.com .

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