Quite intentionally Monday, with a visit to Duluth on his calendar, Eric Kaler grabbed the bright-gold Bulldogs necktie he received as a gift years ago but only wears on occasion.
"It would be silly not to wear it when you get up here," the University of Minnesota system president said in a sit-down with the News Tribune Editorial Board later that day.
His choice of neckwear was particularly appropriate as it perfectly symbolized the purpose of Kaler's trek north, which was to convey pride in the university while also celebrating successes and connecting one last time before stepping down June 30 following eight years as head of a higher-education system that includes campuses in Crookston, Duluth, Morris, Rochester, and the Twin Cities.
"I'm leaving with very good feelings of satisfaction about what I've done," said Kaler, who plans not to retire but to return to teaching. "I've really accomplished what I think I can do here. I could stay around maybe for another year or so and paint the trim, but the house that is going to be what people remember me for is built; and it's time, I think, to let somebody else come (in). ... I came with a goal of access to excellence in education."
He feels complete in accomplishing that, he said. "With help from the governor and legislatures," tuition remains as affordable as possible, especially for in-state students. Tuition increases haven't exceeded inflation rates.
The university system also accomplished "a dramatic reset of our relationship in the medical space," became more competitive in athletics, and increased philanthropy to its campuses under his watch, according to Kaler.
"Those are things that I'm really quite proud of," he said. "I think the university is in a better place than it was eight years ago, and it was in a good place then. We've made good progress on a lot of important elements. We've had a good run, and we're gearing up for a good run with my successor. ... When you think of the things that need doing, it's probably time for a refresh of a systemwide strategic plan in a deeper way than I have done."
President Kaler's tenure has been especially positive for the Duluth campus, UMD Chancellor Lendley "Lynn" Black said to editorial board members. Kaler's support, Black said, has been consistently behind UMD's academic proposals; its establishment of new graduate and undergraduate programs; its expansion of university research, including at the Natural Resources Research Institute in Hermantown; its national championships in hockey; and more.
"With financial issues we've had, he has helped us, too," Black continued. "We're dependent on what the Legislature and governor do, but certainly we would not have made as much progress as we have without (President Kaler). If you recall, in 2014, our structural imbalance was $9.4 million. It's now a little over $4 million. And while that's been (as a result of) hard work on our part - we've had to reduce expenses, (and) we have cut faculty and administrators and staff - to get there, we've also gotten there through the support of the president and his financial team."
Beginning in 2014, the university increased UMD's recurring state funding by $6 million to help address that structural imbalance and to afford cost increases like compensation that promised to grow the imbalance.
Under Kaler, the university system also has supported campus improvements in Duluth including the new Heikkila Chemistry and Advanced Materials Science building and improvements to Romano Gym. And it provided $11 million in one-time funds to help fill UMD's sequestered deficit.
With his visit to Duluth Monday, Kaler's long goodbye began. With 104 more maroon-and-gold ties in his closet - "at last count," he said - his final days as president promise to be packed. None of the ties, however, are likely to seem as bright as the gold one bearing Bulldogs insignias that he wore Monday in Duluth.