A conversation with President Kaler

Executive Editor Shreyas Banerjee sits down with our new university president after his first year at CWRU


Courtesy of CWRU

President Eric Kaler sits down with The Observer to discuss his philosophy on higher education, and to address the practical concerns students have about the actions of CWRU administration.

Shreyas Banerjee, Executive Editor

Quotes have been lightly edited for clarity.

Upon listening to President Eric W. Kaler’s schedule, one can’t help but be struck by just how many aspects of Case Western Reserve University—and beyond—that he has to interact with on a daily basis. His meetings range the entire campus as he bounces between conversations with the deans of the university, the Board of Trustees, the provost, various vice presidents, financial consultants, Cleveland community leaders and students. A former chemical engineer, then president of the University of Minnesota, Kaler became president of CWRU in July 2021 following long-time President Barbara Snyder’s departure in 2020 and President Scott Cowen’s interim administration toward the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

He has certainly made his mark on the university since then. 

Coming to CWRU, he outlined a five-point agenda: enhancing community safety, increasing involvement in the Cleveland community, expanding research, driving dollars to our academics on the business end and increasing the size and diversity of the student population. The last point has been especially contentious across campus with the increase in enrollment leading to policy changes, such as housing no longer being guaranteed for upperclassmena decision that was reversed following massive student backlash. Questions still remain about where President Kaler’s plans will take CWRU and what his driving vision for the university entails. To seek clarification and promote a greater sense of understanding, The Observer approached President Kaler’s office requesting an interview and was finally offered one with the academic year soon to come to a close. During our conversation, we learned important details about his outlook on the university, as well as his perspectives on concrete matters such as new campus facilities, tuition increases and the expansion of the student body.

Sitting in his office in Adelbert Hall, Kaler seems well aware that his initial career path as a chemical engineer doesn’t usually lead to the position of university president.

“[University] presidents used to be, maybe 40 years ago, law professors or humanists of some stripe. And over time, the disciplines of the presidents have shifted to more quantitative ones, more science, more engineering—which I think reflects an interesting shift in higher education and in the view of the value to society of a liberal education,” Kaler said. Now, as costs increase for universities and as they become increasingly essential in modern society, Kaler asserts that presidents with strong quantitative sense are required.

“I think an engineering background is a really good background for a higher [education] leader. Because I do have the quantitative side: I understand the budgets, I understand the financing and I understand how that works. But also, although people don’t generally credit engineers with having a deep interest rooted in the humanities, I took a lot of humanities classes as a student; I read widely. And I’m very interested in that part of our culture, that part of our creative expression, and I really do think that universities are the cradles of civilization in the sense that we carry new ideas forward and bring them to the good of our society.”

Now having been the president of CWRU for almost a year, Kaler seems especially focused on the need to change CWRU’s culture—a notion he has mentioned in previous conversations with The Observer as well. Whether that be through changing the profile of students that are admitted here or just changing the mindset that has taken hold across campus, Kaler seems to believe we can only unlock our true potential by getting outside of our comfort zone as a university.

“I think [CWRU is] an institution that has come out of many years of budgetary tightness—that has a little bit of a culture of scarcity. People are worried they don’t have enough resources to do what they need to do … But now we’re emerging into a situation in which our budget is as strong as I think it’s maybe ever been, certainly in the past 20 years. [My] job is to help people lift their heads a little bit … We have this tagline, right, ‘Think beyond the possible.’ We really need to think beyond what we’ve been doing.”

Kaler points to changes in the general education requirements and the requisite shift from the SAGES program as a way to allow students and faculty to explore different fields. He also repeatedly referred to the investments CWRU has been making to ensure it remains a leader in research, in part by actually creating a research agenda and shifting its focus towards futuristic fields like artificial intelligence.

“I think the key hire that you will see is the Senior Vice President for Research—we’ve never had a Senior Vice President for Research. We’ve never had a person whose job it is to wake up every morning, thinking ‘How do I move the research agenda of Case Western Reserve forward,’ so that’s going to be a big effort. It’s one that I think faculty should be very excited about, because … what we’re going to give them is a set of tools that will enable them to be more effective, [be] more productive and get more out of their work in the research space.” When speaking about faculty roles in research versus teaching, Kaler quickly shut down any such dichotomy: “We research and teach. The best research informs your teaching, and the best teaching informs your research. It has been in my experience an absolute seamless spiral of virtue to build these two things together.”

Along with research, Kaler seems concerned with raising the prestige of the university, putting a concerted effort into raising the university’s media profile: “We need people who are the ‘go-to people’ if The New York Times needs a quote on climate change or ethics of AI … We need to purposefully and proudly build that kind of reputation.”

All of this still raises the question of what Kaler’s ideas actually mean for undergraduate students currently enrolled at CWRU. Part of President Kaler’s plan to boost CWRU’s standing is expanding the campus population, though the rationale for this has not been clearly expressed to the student body until now.

“First off, let’s frame growth, because sometimes I get some pushback, which is overwrought. I’m talking about going from roughly 5,800 students to roughly 6,300 students over a four-year period. This is not overloading the boat; it’s a very modest growth. And it does cause some physical dislocations that we’re working on. We need some more lab space. We need to improve utilization in the classrooms, and we need to make some improvements. We’re absolutely committed to doing that; the deans are working hard.” Though Kaler acknowledges that there will be “pinch points here and there,” he still seems committed to growing the campus population.

“The reasons to grow a little bit are, one, is that by and large, we do have the capacity. And so in any business, if you think this is a business—which in some sense it is—why wouldn’t you fill your space? … Number two, if you look at our applicants, and you look at the 1,000 people we admit at the end of the admission cycle, and you look at the next 1,000 people that we don’t admit, there’s not a lot of difference between those people. So I’m convinced, and our admissions people are convinced, that we can grow a little bit with no diminishment in the quality of the student. And that actually delivers on the promise that we make to society, which is to provide a Case Western Reserve quality education to students who are going to succeed in getting it and will … go forward in the world and do great things. I don’t want to get too moralistic about it, but we have almost an obligation to provide an opportunity if we have room for those students to come. Third reason is that a larger student body is more vibrant. They’re, by definition, more and different kinds of people. So you get a little different mix. You might meet a person that you wouldn’t otherwise meet. It also enables us to offer a larger number of classes and a broader array of classes, because we have students who will take them. So that creates a more vibrant, intellectually diverse and active campus, which I think is a good thing. So when you add all of those up, it seems like, to me, something we ought to do.”

To accommodate the larger student population, Kaler points to the upcoming additions to the South Residential Village which will house 600 more students, though these dorms will not be open until fall 2024. Kaler also wants the first-year dorms in the North Residential Village to be renovated eventually. Plans are also in place to redevelop part of the Case Quad, with a new science and engineering building in the works that Kaler hopes will be completed in the next five years. Additionally, the Undergraduate Diversity Collaborative (UDC) is trying to work with the university to build an “Identity Center” building on the Quad to create spaces for minority groups.

One of the other biggest concerns of the student body continues to be the increasing tuition. Returning students are expected to pay 5% more in the 2022-2023 academic year than they did this year, and the tuition for incoming students will increase from $54,020 to $61,040—an increase of over 10%. President Kaler ascribed the 5% increase to inflationary pressures, noting that the consumer price index climbed 7% in 2021, but said that overall, CWRU’s tuition was “the midpoint of our peers … It’s a high-quality education, and you should pay the price similar to what our peers that give you a high-quality education are paying.” Kaler noted that the administration was working with the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) to ensure that “there’s no dollar spent on management or oversight unnecessarily, because that’s $1 that should be spent on the academic side of the house.” He added, “we are adding budget and staff [in the Student Life area], partly to handle the modestly increasing number of students, but also partly to fill cuts that we had to take during COVID.”

There has been increased discussion surrounding a grandfather clause in tuition, where CWRU could still increase tuition prices each year, but the increase would only affect the incoming class, allowing current students to maintain a budget and know exactly how much they will pay to attend CWRU upon admission. Incoming USG president Ananya Hari endorses the idea, as has The Observer in the past. When pressed on the topic, President Kaler responded:

“We did do that in the sense of continuing students [with] the inflationary 5% increase and new students [having] higher tuition, and that’ll move through with them … I don’t know if you would call it ‘uncling,’ maybe not ‘grandfathering.’ The real challenge with grandfathering is that it’s very hard to know what the economic situation is gonna look like four years from now. We could get a period of 8% compounded inflation, which, unfortunately, could happen. And you wind up with, if you do the math, a 75% difference between the grandfathered tuition and the un-grandfathered tuition. And that gets to be a fairness issue to me; that doesn’t feel right to me. So I’m not a fan of grandfathering. I am a fan of as low of an increase as we possibly can [sic].”

With a college education becoming more essential than ever to get a job in the modern workforce, tuition raises are real concerns; more students than ever are going to college. To this end, President Kaler reflected on higher education as a whole and its role in shaping students, both by preparing them not only to navigate a competitive workforce but also to be educated citizens of society.

“I think that somebody who gets a STEM degree, while they perhaps have a set of skills that lets them go get a job straight away [after college], they’re educated people. They’ve taken the general education courses, and if they’re here, they probably minored in two or three other things. They are educated, rounded people who can take part in the democratic process, etc. … So I’m a huge fan of a broad education, but I’m also fine if people want to just major in engineering. That’s okay.”

Kaler emphasized the importance of a CWRU education in preparing people for the cutthroat nature of commerce and the job market. To this end, he name-dropped Thomas Friedman’s theory that “the world is flat,” where the globalized world is a level playing field due to the increased interconnectedness of global business, causing us to work harder in order to keep pace with others in different countries.

“The most essential element of a successful society is education. The road to success is paved with education—always has been, always will be. So every bit of effort that a society can put forward to educate its population is effort very well spent; it should be the number one priority of any government [to] educate its population. And that spans everything. K-12 education in many parts of this country is a disaster. So now you’re saddling these young people with a tyranny of low expectations. They’re not able to compete in the global workforce competition, which is ‘the’ competition … And yet we somehow think it’s okay to let these young people not have tools for success. And then if you are able to go to college, that does give you the set of skills that you need to compete for world-class jobs. It is necessary.”