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People’s State of the University event responds to U of MN President Kaler address

by staff |
April 6, 2015
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Speakers at the University of Minnesota People’s State of the University event.
Speakers at the University of Minnesota People’s State of the University event. (Fight Back! News/Staff)

Minneapolis, MN - On the evening of April 2, students, staff and faculty of the University of Minnesota gathered for the People’s State of the University, an event held an hour after the university's official State of the University address given by President Eric Kaler.

The State of the University address is used by the administration to lay out its carefully scripted public relations for the media, state legislators, wealthy alumni and corporate donors. In contrast, the People’s State of the University highlighted the everyday experience and struggle for the students, staff and faculty on campus, including rising tuition, administrative bloat, a lack of diversity and increased strain on workers.

The speakers for the event included Skyler Dorr on behalf of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Cherrene Horazuk on behalf of AFSCME 3800 - the clerical workers union, David Melendez speaking about the Morrill Hall occupation of Feb. 9, Bio-Ethics Professor Carl Elliot, a critic of the university's research practices and Lindsay Hendricks of SLAC - the Student-Labor-Action-Coalition.

In his prepared remarks, University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler laid the groundwork for expected tuition increases after a two year ‘tuition freeze,’ explaining, “We will probably get back to a period in which we have relatively modest 2 or 3 percent tuition increases.” Despite his suggesting the university might have to “get back” to these increases he highlighted the fact that in fact it was “double-digit increases” for the better part of a decade.

With regard to tuition, Skyler Dorr of SDS pointed out that tuition in 1993-94 was $3421 and has skyrocketed to $13,626 today, an increase of 143% after adjusting for inflation. SDS member Maggie Kilgo added, “SDS is a group that fought for - and won - the tuition freeze that President Kaler now claims responsibility for. SDS was at the forefront of that struggle dating back before Kaler’s arrival on campus and passed an all campus election referendum by over 85% in 2013 demanding an end to tuition increases and a cut to administrative bloat.”

In addition to President Kaler trying to claim credit for the tuition freeze over the past two years, he also tried to claim credit for changes to the racist university Crime Alert system. David Melendez, one of those who occupied the President’s office on Feb. 9 to demand among other things changes to the crime alerts as well as more diversity and inclusion on campus, was quick to reclaim this victory as one of students demanding change. Melendez called for students to remain “critically engaged” and “challenge power” as essential principles as higher education at the university.

Melendez also works with Adalante! and Students [email protected] for Chicano/Chicana Studies at the University which have been working to defend cuts to ethnic studies programs like Chicano/Chicana Studies and to increase the number of tenure track jobs, calling for five full-time tenured ‘super faculty’ for Chicano studies.

Dorr from SDS added that, when asked about campus climate and safety for women, “Kaler spoke about the resources of the Aurora Center, which is not a preventative measure against attacks…and we need to teach boys ‘not to be jerks.’” This only further highlights how out of touch the administration is with issues of diversity, equality, inclusivity and safety on campus.

Cherrene Horazuk of AFSCME 3800, representing clerical workers at the university also noted President Kaler’s attempt to claim credit for progress at the university that were actually won by dissenting students, staff and faculty. Horazuk talked about Kaler’s speech being full of “buzzwords, elitism, corporate control and corporate budget models,” and described how he attempted to “marginalize the voices of dissent in order to alienate those who challenge the status quo.” For example, while President Kaler proudly stated “we must intentionally reject complacency about diversity and campus climate,” he neglected acknowledging his own “intentional” efforts to avoid meeting with and engaging in dialogue with students of color in the Whose Diversity? collective, who have for over a year tried to engage administration and press them for institutional change to create a more tolerant and inclusive university.

Horazuk specifically cited Kaler taking credit for the actions taken by Melendez and other members of the Whose Diversity? collective who occupied his office demanding change in February, “When talking about crime alert change Kaler claimed that it was made because of a round table discussion six months ago rather than the forced listening discussion which Whose Diversity? Had with him a few months ago.”

Finally Kaler talked a lot about the extensive criticism the university has received in recent months from two major reviews of the university’s human research conduct. To this Kaler said, “We do recognize that that is a problem.” However for many years now people have been telling Kaler, the board of regents, the national and local media and the community about the issues regarding unethical practices of the university with regard to human subjects. Among the leading and most vocal critics has been Professor Carl Elliot.

Professor Elliot highlighted the profit over people mentality of the University of Minnesota medical research programs, specifically that which saw test subject Dan Markingson die. Elliot said that the “University of Minnesota has consistently made false statements,” with regard to their knowledge of problems with the research programs. Elliot highlighted that Kaler has known of the issues for a long time but has routinely denied knowing or deflected criticism by suggesting it had been dealt with in-house. Two external reports recently found otherwise, describing “a culture of fear and intimidation around research ethics.”

While Kaler and his administrators celebrate another year of bloated salaries, the university’s students, staff and faculty remain resolved to continue to work hard to challenge and change the campus to be more just, diverse, equitable and affordable.