Like many leaders of large public universities these days, Eric Kaler saw highs and lows during his tenure at the helm of the University of Minnesota. Since taking over the position in 2011, he's gone to bat with state legislators over funding and tuition prices, launched a multibillion-dollar fundraising campaign, weathered several scandals, and promised to reduce administrative spending.
He won't be the only chief executive packing up his office in the coming months — in his case, a year before his contract was up. Eduardo Padrón is leaving Miami Dade College after nearly 25 years. Judy Genshaft is retiring from the University of South Florida after 19 years in the position. Dorothy Leland, chancellor of the University of California, Merced, is stepping down after an eight-year run. And James Gallogly, who has been president of The University of Oklahoma for less than a year, is also leaving the position, though under less-amenable conditions.
Smaller colleges are seeing departures, too, with leadership turnover at institutions including Goucher College, in Maryland, and Iona College, in New York.
Across higher ed, presidents are spending less time in the position as the nature of the job changes and factors such as political controversy and fissures with governing boards make involuntary departures more common.
We caught up with Kaler — who will become president emeritus and eventually return to the faculty — to talk more about how interest in the role of college president is changing and his hindsight views on the position.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
EDUCATION DIVE: How did you know it was the right time for you to leave the job? And how can other presidents know?
ERIC KALER: I remember asking a recently retired CEO from a Fortune 500 company in town, "When did you know it was time to go?" And he said, instantly, year seven. I laughed out loud.
A lot of things come into play. I've always thought the optimum time for leadership in a senior position is eight to 10 years. It's difficult to continue to be innovative and drive change and evolution if you've been in place for a decade. It's not impossible, and there are gifted leaders who serve longer terms. But for me, that seven- to 10-year window always felt about right. And frankly, and this sounds a little self-serving, I have accomplished what I set out to do.
KALER: We've bent the cost curve on increases in undergraduate tuition. We're rounding the final curve on a $4 billion capital campaign. Our four-year graduation rate will be 71% this year, up from 54% when I started. The ACT score of the entering class has never been higher. We'll cross $1 billion dollars a year in research expenditures next year. We completed an athletes' village and hired some great new coaches and an athletic director.
There are things the institution needs to do next. It's time to refresh our strategic planning, for example. That's not something you do in year nine or 10 of a presidency. And so it just felt like a really good time for me to make a transition.
You wrote last month in an op-ed for the StarTribune that "it is easy to criticize that which you do not understand" in response to a critique of higher ed spending. Affordability is a big concern among students and their families, but the argument in defense of that spending is nuanced. What is public college leaders' role in educating the public about why college costs what it does?
KALER: It's critical that we educate the public as to the reason, and you have to begin by reframing even the question you asked me. You asked me why college costs so much. Well, if you look back 20 years, cost per student based on the combination of state aid and tuition was a certain number. In Minnesota, if you account for Consumer Price Index inflation, that number is actually a little bit higher than what we charge now for the combination of tuition and state aid. That's a complicated way of saying that the cost hasn't skyrocketed beyond the rate of inflation. What has changed is who pays. Because of pretty dramatic disinvestment in state support of public higher education, the cost shift to students and their families has been dramatic.
That isn't to say that we shouldn't continue to be very aggressive in controlling our costs, which we are. It doesn't say we shouldn't grow financial aid for people who need it, because we are. But to castigate institutions when there's been dramatic disinvestment by the state that used to be our co-equal or better is something you can't ignore.
You went head-to-head with the state legislature over how to manage tuition increases for resident and nonresident students as well as the need for more funding. What is your advice to other college presidents coming up against that same issue of needing to balance the interests of legislators, students, the university and other stakeholders?
KALER: The balance a thoughtful administration strikes is between the revenue associated with higher out-of-state tuition and the number of students who are attracted by lower out-of-state tuition, recognizing that those students sometimes stay in Minnesota, build a life, a family and a career and benefit the state in the long term.
Minnesota had very low nonresident, nonreciprocity tuition and attracted a good number of nonresident students. Legislators complained that we were leaving money on the table. So we increased out-of-state tuition pretty noticeably, and, sure enough, the number of out-of-state students dropped. We are working again to grow pipelines and rebuild the numbers while maintaining a higher price point for out-of-state students.
It was notable that far fewer people applied for the U of Minnesota president job this time around than when the job was last available. What do you make of that level of interest?
KALER: That's interesting to think about. These are demanding and stressful jobs. I think people see that and they make a choice that while the compensation is typically good, sometimes the challenge of the job leads you to not want to go down that road.
We switched search firms during the most recent search, so perhaps that affected the number of people in the pool. But at the end of the day you need one candidate who's perfect for the job, and the search committee did a great job in finding and recruiting Joan Gabel.
In your view, what's the biggest challenge college presidents face today?
KALER: The public perception of higher ed as too costly, and the concomitant view that it's therefore not worth it. This plays into an anti-intellectual wave in the country, particularly a wave that thinks people should have their own facts; a world where you can curate your news feeds and social media to live in a little bubble free of input from people with different points of view. That's really dangerous and, unfortunately, that's where we are. Higher ed needs to work really hard to break down those bubbles and talk about the value of an educated population.
For someone in the role of a college president, what's their specific job in addressing that concern or that challenge
KALER: We often are blessed with the bully pulpit and we have opportunities in regular media and social media to be thought leaders, to articulate the advantages I described. That's what we need to do.