Local View: Kaler's tenure hardly a success for Duluth

With just a few months remaining before the University of Minnesota welcomes new President Joan Gabel, the incumbent, Eric Kaler, has begun a "farewell tour" of the system's campuses. On Monday, he visited Duluth, where I serve as president of th...

Scott Laderman.JPG
Scott Laderman.

With just a few months remaining before the University of Minnesota welcomes new President Joan Gabel, the incumbent, Eric Kaler, has begun a "farewell tour" of the system's campuses. On Monday, he visited Duluth, where I serve as president of the faculty union.

Like all good Minnesotans, the faculty would have offered Kaler a polite welcome - those of us who recognized him, that is. Kaler visited UMD only a handful of times during his tenure, and he long ago stopped meeting with its faculty, whose obstreperousness clearly irked him. We were not invited to meet with him Monday. Had we been, we would have been pleasant hosts, even as our friendly demeanors masked extraordinarily deep frustration.

Since Kaler's tenure began, the faculty in Duluth has been pleading with him to fix the deep funding inequities that have UMD students receiving far fewer dollars from the system than their counterparts elsewhere. For example, the Twin Cities campus, where Kaler serves as de facto chancellor, receives approximately twice the number of per-student state dollars as the University of Minnesota Duluth. The Morris campus receives approximately three times the amount. The response from Kaler and his administration has been either obfuscation, denial, or, perhaps most insulting of all, a bizarre insistence that the system has been unusually generous with us.

With the administration's continued inaction, UMD faces a severe budget crisis that will force it to lay off approximately 60 full-time-equivalent faculty and staff in the coming months. These terminations will follow dozens that already were made. The threat to UMD's academic programs and its status as a regional comprehensive university is serious and real.

It's not too late for Kaler to do the right thing. All we're asking is that he value UMD half as much as he seems to value Gophers athletics. When the Twin Cities athletics department was running persistent annual deficits of approximately $7 million, the system stepped up with a permanent allocation of state funds. UMD's recurring deficit is only half that amount, and we have the added advantage of actually fulfilling the university's core mission. We have been asking for our fair share of state dollars for years, to no avail. Yet we will not give up. We refuse to accept that our students are worth less than others.


Of course, Kaler is more than the ostensible system leader. He is also a boss. How have employees fared under his management? Like his immediate predecessor, Kaler has embraced the neoliberal "cost sharing" model for the provision of health insurance. This has meant exponentially higher co-pays and substantial deductibles, which are easier to stomach when, like Kaler and other senior leaders, you make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Faculty and professional staff whose appointments began after 2011, moreover, now receive a considerably lower university contribution to their retirement plans.

Rank-and-file employees, unlike top administrators and select coaches, have seen their wages stagnate, with inflationary adjustments, rather than genuine raises: Kaler's "new normal." This has especially disadvantaged the faculty at UMD, who remain grossly undercompensated. Recruitment and retention challenges have been one obvious result. According to the most recent Board of Regents data, UMD faculty earn only 86 percent of what their peers make. This is down from an already abysmal 87 percent a year earlier.

If faculty at the Twin Cities campus were paid so little relative to their peers, I have no doubt it would be treated by the system as an institutional crisis requiring immediate correction. Yet Kaler and his team, who, again, serve as the de facto leadership of the Twin Cities campus, have done nothing - and I mean nothing - to address this ongoing problem for UMD.

One measure of effective leadership is whether someone leaves an institution in better shape than he or she found it. By this criterion - at least from the perspective of UMD faculty, staff, and students - Kaler's eight-year tenure has, to put it charitably, hardly been a success.

Nevertheless, the faculty would have looked forward to welcoming him to Duluth. And to wishing him farewell.

Scott Laderman is a professor of history at UMD and the president of the University Education Association-Duluth, its faculty union.

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