Eric W. Kaler grew research, fundraising and graduation rates

Case Western Reserve Board Chair Fred DiSanto announced today that the trustees have selected former University of Minnesota President Eric W. Kaler to lead the institution as of July 1, 2021.

“Our university’s growing momentum attracted an exceptional pool of candidates,” DiSanto said. “But Eric’s unique combination of intellect, accomplishments and authenticity ultimately made him our unanimous choice to become Case Western Reserve’s next president.” 

An accomplished chemical engineer known for his affinity for metrics, Kaler led the University of Minnesota—known there as “the U”—to unprecedented growth in research, fundraising and graduation rates. 

When he stepped down as president in 2019, Kaler told a reporter it would be difficult to leave the area. Not only was he an alumnus of the university, but also he and his wife, Karen, had come to love the community during the past eight years. As he learned more about Case Western Reserve’s strengths, however, Kaler became increasingly intrigued. And after engaging at length with the search committee, he felt a match between the university’s current needs and his own skills and experiences.

“There is a tremendous fit,” Kaler said, noting his work in elevating research, collaborating with hospital systems, and encouraging entrepreneurship, among other areas. “Once I looked, I got more excited… [and thought] I’m really made for this job.”

Between Kaler’s first and last year as president, the University of Minnesota’s research expenditures climbed from $749.1 million to $1.013 billion—an increase of 35%. During that same period, business and industry research funding climbed from $55.2 million to $81.6 million, just under 48%.

Part of the research progress emerged through a state partnership Kaler pitched to the legislature at the beginning of his second year. Known as MnDRIVE (Minnesota Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy), the program initially sent $18 million in annual state funding to U of M research areas that aligned with industry needs and statewide challenges. Topics included robotics and advanced manufacturing, the environment, treatments for brain conditions and, later, a statewide clinical trials network for cancer (which added $4 million per year to the allocation).

David McMillan, a current regent and former chair of its board, attributes Kaler’s success in launching MnDRIVE and other initiatives to two primary factors.

“He had that kind of big-picture vision,” McMillan said, and understood the need for “investment in relationships with important stakeholders.”

Photo of Eric Kaler and his wife, Karen
Eric Kaler with his wife, Karen

The university also launched its first capital campaign in more than a decade under Kaler. Scheduled to end next year, the $4 billion effort stood at $3.3 billion when he stepped down as president. Among its priorities were scholarships for students from low-income and underrepresented backgrounds. During Kaler’s tenure, the number of students of color on campus climbed by 46%, and the gap between white and Black students’ graduation rates fell from 30 to 10%. Meanwhile, the overall graduation rate improved from 54 to 71%. Kaler also kept annual tuition increases below the rate of inflation, and froze them for two years as part of securing state support for MnDRIVE.

Linda Cohen, who chaired the regents during Kaler’s first years as president, cited the range of expertise among his leadership team as a key contributor to his effectiveness. One of Kaler’s first appointments was Provost Karen Hanson, a longtime professor of philosophy who earned her doctorate from Harvard.

“He’s very good at recognizing that it’s important to utilize the skills of people in other fields,” Cohen said, adding “he was very good about listening to different points of view.”

She and McMillan added that Kaler knows when to empower leaders as well as also how to remain sufficiently engaged to be able assist at key moments. A significant example of this quality involved the achievement of a major expanded agreement between the university and Fairview Health, an organization that operated the University of Minnesota Medical Center and nearly a dozen other hospitals in the region. 

“That relationship needed a lot of work,” Cohen said. “He is a determined leader.”

Because Cuyahoga County’s rapidly climbing COVID-19 cases put it on the state’s “watch list” for reaching Ohio’s highest level of transmission risk, university officials and Kaler agreed to postpone an in-person announcement until sometime next year—when conditions hopefully improve.

Board leader DiSanto, who also chaired the presidential search committee, emphasized that the campus community’s engagement played a key role in the search committee’s work. Coordinated through a 23-member advisory committee, the process of gathering ideas and insights included two dozen town hall meetings and more than 1,200 survey responses. The committee report that emerged noted broad consensus regarding the importance of fundraising, and a significant proportion emphasizing the need for a leader who has “sterling academic credentials with a strong research background.” 

Kaler holds 10 patents, has published more than 200 peer-reviewed papers, and is a member of the National Academy of Engineering. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for his leadership in engineering and in higher education. He was a member of the inaugural class of the National Academy of Inventors. He also is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and American Chemical Society.

Cohen and McMillan both pointed to Kaler’s wife, Karen, as another major contributor to his success—and he heartily agrees. During his tenure at Minnesota, she regularly attended and hosted events, and was known for her warmth and enthusiasm. 

“She’s an amazing ambassador,” McMillan said, “just such a wonderful representative of the university.”

The two wed in 1979, six months after meeting. They have two adult sons—Charlie and Sam—and a nearly 4-year-old granddaughter, Ophelia.