MARSHALL - A little more than a month into his new job as president of the University of Minnesota, Eric Kaler said he is still learning from Minnesotans. Hearing from members of the public and fellow educators will be important in determining a vision for the university's future, Kaler said.
"I am here to listen," Kaler said, speaking to members of the Marshall Rotary Club on Tuesday. Kaler said he would be traveling around southern Minnesota this week as part of his first major trip outside the Twin Cities.
Accepting the president's position was not a small undertaking, Kaler said.
"I'm really passionate about the fact that the country is in a crisis" of education, he said. Higher education is "under attack," both from funding cuts and attitudes that excellence in education isn't a priority.
"I don't think we can sit back and watch great institutions of learning dry up," Kaler said.
Economic conditions and agriculture will both continue to be crucial topics for the university, Kaler said. Investment in public education and university research is needed to create jobs and strengthen the economy, he said. Simply becoming more efficient isn't enough.
"When you innovate, you drive the economy forward," Kaler said. And with challenges like the food crisis ahead, agriculture will remain a key part of innovations for Minnesota.
Agriculture "is absolutely important to the university," he said.
Agricultural learning also forms one of the university's major contributions to rural communities and economies.
"We're doing a lot in this community," Kaler said, both through the Marshall Extension office and the impact of university educations. For example, he said, 696 University of Minnesota alumni and 608 current students live in the Marshall area.
In response to audience questions, Kaler said granting students access to higher education would be another part of the puzzle. There are more applicants to the University of Minnesota system than there are available places, and tuition rates are still a challenge to many students.
"I think the real pinch comes for middle-class families," Kaler said - families who can neither afford to pay for university on their own or qualify for federal tuition grants. In response, he said the university will need to step up efforts to raise scholarship funds for students.
Kaler said teamwork between the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system will be important in addressing the education crisis.
"The systems have to work very closely together," he said.
Southwest Minnesota State University interim president Ron Wood, who was present at Kaler's talk, said teamwork between MnSCU and the U of M is important, but the idea also extends to K-12 education and local communities.
"You can do so many things together," Wood said.
Kaler will be making other appearances in the region this week, including at Farmfest and at the University of Minnesota's Southwest Research and Outreach Center in Lamberton today.