An engineer’s vision

Eric Kaler addresses the 137th Awards Ceremony of the Case Alumni Association at Homecoming 2022. Photo by Rob Wetzler for CAA.

an engineer's vision

Eric Kaler wants to expand research, grow enrollment, and raise a new flagship on Case Quad. How’s that for starters?

When he became the 11th president of Case Western Reserve University on July 1, 2021, Eric W. Kaler brought a wealth of academic experience to campus, but also impressive engineering credentials.

 

He earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at California Institute of Technology on his way to a doctorate at the University of Minnesota, where he served as president from 2011-2019. He’s attained 10 patents as a researcher focused on complex fluids. He’s a member of both the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Inventors.

 

It’s no surprise, maybe, that he’s now leading another nationally ranked research university. But Kaler is not satisfied with the status quo at his new campus. He thinks Case Western Reserve’s vaunted science and engineering programs are overdue for investment, and that lab facilities must be upgraded to allow faculty and students to flourish. So, yes, he has a few plans.

 

Recently, Case Alumnus sat down with Kaler — the first engineer to lead the university in 20 years — to talk about his vision for CWRU and the Case School of Engineering. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

 

You’ve had a full year to get to know the university. Share with us your impressions of CWRU and what you see as its strengths and opportunities.

 

Well Case Western Reserve is just a fabulous university. When I considered taking another round as a university president, this is exactly the kind of place I was looking for — very strong science and engineering programs, very strong medical programs. But also a comprehensive university, a place that really educates the whole student. It’s perfect. And the warmth with which Karen and I have been received, the enormous potential here, the eagerness of people to move forward, it’s just been a wonderful year and a half for us. I’m looking forward to many more.

You’ve set a goal of expanding the research enterprise from $400 million to $600 million in less than 10 years. That’s a pretty big jump in investment. Why do you see that as important, and achievable?

 

It’s important because that really is our DNA. Case and Western Reserve have a long history of excellence in science and medical research and that’s who we are. We’re a terrific undergraduate institution, but at the end of the day we are a Category 1 research university, one of the leading research institutions in the country. We need to get back to our roots and grow our research enterprise.

 

On the medical side, we’ve been good. We’re solid there. But the science and engineering side of what we do has not grown over the past decade or for 15 years. We need to enable our faculty to succeed in that space and, importantly, to grow the faculty in science and engineering.

Eric Kaler walking across a newly renovated Case Quad in the fall of his second year as university president. Photo by Roadell Hickman for CAA.

That brings us to the new science and engineering building you want to build on Case Quad. Tell us why it’s needed, and what will be required to get it done.

 

It’s absolutely needed because we’re just flat out of space, and for many of our programs there really, literally, is no place to put new faculty researchers. So if we’re going to grow our research enterprise and enable the faculty who are here to be more productive and add colleagues, we have to build the space. That’s number one.

 

Number two is that we have not invested in science and engineering space here in many, many years. What we do have is a little bit outdated or outmoded in terms of layout. Science used to be more of an individual sport. Now it’s a team sport. So you need large spaces that are adjustable, that can be configured for changing conditions, and that’s what this new building is going to be.

 

It’s going to go where Yost Hall is now. Some of our readers may have fond memories of Yost Hall. I know they do. My response is, if they’d like to buy a brick from Yost Hall, they’re going to be for sale. They’ll have a memory to hold.

 

You’re talking about funding a $300 million project. What does it take to get that done? What kind of support are you hoping for from alumni?

 

We’re funding this in two ways. We issued a century bond earlier this year, when interest rates were low – very good timing on our part. That’s a $350 million dollar bond that is due in 100 years. We’ll use about half of that, about $150 million dollars of that bond toward the building.

That will be repaid by the increase in indirect costs that a growing research enterprise will bring to us.

 

And then we are out looking and talking to all of our alumni about their share of that spend – which will be about $150 million.

 

We’ve had many, many good conversations but are always looking for more engagement and more investment that our alumni are willing to make in their alma mater.

 

Also, we hired a new senior vice president of research, Michael Oakes, from the University of Minnesota. I worked with him for years, great guy. He is not shy. He’s six feet, eight inches tall. He’s leaning into this. He’s challenged me, frankly, to increase the pace in which we can do this.

Eric and Karen Kaler greeted students and staff on a soggy freshman move-in day in August.

Your desire to expand the research enterprise, is this something you saw as feasible coming into the job? Or is this a conclusion you drew after being here awhile?

 

When I was at the University of Minnesota, where I was president for eight years, we grew our research spending substantially. It’s now over a billion dollars a year. So I know how it can be done. I know the steps we have to take. And I think my ability to start to move the culture has been important. I’m certain that we can get there.

 

How do you think your background as an engineer shapes your approach to running a university?

 

The answer’s really pretty simple. What engineers do is gather data, understand processes, and when they have enough data, they move forward to make an improvement or an addition. That’s what I do as a higher education leader.

 

It’s also useful to have been a president before, because I understand that one can move more quickly than the standard pace of academics, which is slow. The pace of change that I’ve brought is, I think, a step up from where we’ve been. But I would say, in a nutshell, it’s the training that engineers get around analysis and prescription for new action.

 

Of all the engineering disciplines, why did you pick chemical engineering?

I was a tinkerer when I was a kid. I had the proverbial chemistry set, when you could actually buy a chemistry set with chemicals in it. I took things apart and tried to put them back together. Probably the apex of my journey in that was when I took apart my father’s single-lens camera, which might have been the most expensive thing he owned. And when I put it back together, I had some parts left over.

 

So I was a tinkerer, and I really wanted to be an engineer, which is the reason I went to Cal Tech. And I had a really terrific chemistry teacher in high school, Mr. McDonald. So I figured, well, engineering plus chemistry equals chemical engineering. And it didn’t hurt that at that time chemical engineers had the highest starting salaries of any engineer.

 

“I was a tinkerer when I was a kid… I took apart my father’s single-lens camera, which might have been the most expensive thing he owned. And when I put it back together, I had some parts left over.”

You think university enrollment can and should grow. Can you explain by how much, and why?

 

When I came I was a little bit surprised that we had, somewhat by accident, recruited one of the largest undergraduate classes in probably forever. And I thought, well this is going to be a challenge. And it actually wasn’t a challenge. We had the capacity. And I looked around and I realized, we could grow, a little bit – from about 5,800 undergraduates to probably 6,300 or 6,400. Gradually. We’ll probably reach that number in 2024. Quite frankly, I think the benefit of a Case education is enormous, and if we can provide that opportunity to a few hundred more students, we should do that.

 

You talk about the university getting more involved in solving problems in the community. Why is that important to you?

 

Part of that is my background. I spent pretty much all of my career in public institutions, and many of them had the land grant mission. Their charge was not only to educate and do research but also to serve the place that you’re in. When I look at the east side of Cleveland, this is an area that could use our help. So I want our folks to go into the community, affect change and make a difference. So that’s what I’ve charged people to do, and people are eager to engage. I know we have a wonderful Engineers Without Borders and other groups that help our students engage in the community. I just want to supercharge that.

 

Welcome to Cleveland, by the way. Tell us how you and Karen are settling in.

 

First off, Cleveland is just a fantastic city. For the first six months or so, I would talk to people, Clevelanders, and I would say, “Cleveland, what a wonderful place to live – who knew about this?”

Eventually my wife told me I sounded like an idiot because I’m saying this to people who already know this. So I stopped doing that.

 

But it’s a hidden treasure, particularly the University Circle area. The fact that I can look out my office window and see the home of the best orchestra in the world, one of the best art museums in the world, and the list goes on. And I get full advantage of those and I don’t have to mow any of that grass. It’s a wonderful place to live. I have become, in a year and half, a huge fan of Cleveland, Ohio.

Eric Kaler plays some Spikeball with students before the Homecoming Game at DiSanto Field in October. Photo by Matt Shiffler for CWRU.

We hear you and Karen have a new dog, a rescue dog named Adelbert. Tell us about life with man’s best friend.

Karen and I have always been dog people, essentially since we married 43 years ago. Our last dog, Lida, died right before Christmas. And Karen said, ‘Oh, we’re not going to have another dog, we can travel.’ And I said, ‘OK.’ And then a few months ago, I walked into the room where Karen was on the computer and she closes her laptop. Now, any time your spouse closes her laptop when you approach is not a good sign. So I was curious.

A few days later, she opens the laptop and shows me a picture and says, ‘I found our dog.’ So we go over to meet him, and he is a 125-pound cross between a St. Bernard and a poodle. And he is a bucket of love. But he is a great big boy. And so we met him and fell in love. He was found by the Cleveland animal control people tied to a dumpster. Unbelievable, really. So he came home with us in July, and he’s just wonderful. We call him Bert for short. But he’s too magnificent of a dog for a short name. If he’s in trouble, his full name is Adelbert, and he lives at Harcourt House. Hear the complete conversation on  think[box] Radio: casealumni.org/thinkboxradio

 

Karen Kaler took her husband to meet Adelbert, who had been abandoned.

watch the think[box] radio interview here:

Season 2. EP 3: An Engineer’s Vision: A conversation with CWRU President Eric Kaler

Eric Kaler, the first engineer to lead Case Western Reserve University in 20 years, is going to make Case a busy place. He wants to grow enrollment, expand the research enterprise, and build a $300 million science and engineering flagship on Case Quad. Meanwhile, he and his wife, Karen, have introduced a new lord of the manor at Harcourt House, a beloved rescue dog named Adelbert—whom you will meet in this podcast.

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