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New university president: 'We have work to do'

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MINNEAPOLIS -- The new University of Minnesota president promised to lower administrative costs every year he holds the job and in his Thursday inaugural address said professors must keep up or "step aside."

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"My friends, we have work to do," President Eric Kaler said as he was officially installed as the university's 16th president.

Kaler spoke to 1,000 invited guests and others via the Internet, including students and staff gathered at each of the university's five campuses.

The 55-year-old president, on the job since July 1, used some of his half-hour speech to praise those at the university, but spent much of the time talking in general terms about the need to change. In many ways, his speech echoed one given on Tuesday by new Chancellor Steven Rosenstone of the Minnesota Colleges and Universities system, who also said that change is in the air.

Kaler emphasized the need to improve the research aspect of the university. University of Minnesota research, he said, had led to innovations ranging from the Honeycrisp apple to heart pacemakers.

"Today, in labs just a short walk from here, we are investigating food safety, Alzheimer's, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and childhood illnesses of all kinds," he told a jammed Ted Mann Concert Hall.

In putting change atop his presidential agenda, Kaler made it clear he will not sit around and wait for change to come to him.

"There is a real cost to slowness, to long meetings, excessive committee deliberations and endless email chains," he declared.

State House Majority Leader Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, said he was glad to hear Kaler embrace change, especially with the university's bureaucracy. As a student in the late 1980s, Dean said he saw plenty of red tape on campus.

Kaler did not give specifics, but said he is "committed to re-imagining how we operate and function."

The new president seemed to stun some in the audience when he told professors:

"If your research is stale, if your classroom is boring, if your community engagement is ineffective, you must re-invent yourself or, frankly step aside."

His inaugural speech mentioned a decrease in state higher education funding, but Kaler did not directly criticize legislative Republicans or Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.

Kaler promised to cut university administration costs every year he holds the job, but did not say how much.

He also did not address his own $610,000 annual salary, even with students standing outside the concert hall protesting his pay. Saying they wanted to "chop from the top," Students for a Democratic Society questioned top administrators accepting pay increases while other workers face furloughs.

In a speech during Kaler's inauguration, Dayton said that since the university is the state's only public research institution, it needs to be properly funded.

"My grandfather told me that if you have all of your eggs in one basket, you had better take very good care of that basket," the governor said.

Kaler, who announced his family will fund four scholarships a year for undergraduate students, said he and other students could only attend the university (he received his doctorate there) because of public and private financial aid.

But, he added, the university's "excellent education" and access for many Minnesotans "have never been more at risk."

The former Stony Brook University vice president encouraged Minnesotans and others with university connections to promote the university together.

"Wrapped in tradition, lifted by pride, driven by our desire to fulfill our great promise, we have much work to do," he said. "Let's go do it together."

Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Daily Globe.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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