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Returning after 40 years, I see excellence—and opportunity

Headshot of Case Western Reserve President Eric Kaler PHOTO: ROGER MASTROIANNI

When I first set foot on this campus 40 years ago, I was a PhD student giving my first scientific conference presentation.

I knew Case Western Reserve was a university of unquestioned excellence. Just a year earlier, doctoral graduate Paul Berg had won the Nobel Prize for work in recombinant DNA; before the decade was out, former faculty member George Hitchings would earn another for discoveries related to chemotherapy.

And now I was in Strosacker Auditorium, amid a recession that would see unemployment approach 11%, hoping to help my own approaching job search.

If someone had said then that I’d return someday as president, I would have laughed. I had wanted to be an engineer for as long as I could remember. I loved hands-on learning, figuring out how things worked and finding ways to make them better. And I loved to teach.

For nearly 30 years, I was mostly a researcher, but all through my career I was also involved in leadership, serving as a chair and a dean, and then leaving research to be a provost and then a president. In the process, I began to see parallels: Chemical engineering requires understanding structures and interactions; so did leadership. Both involve recognizing how external factors influenced internal actions. And perhaps most important, each offers opportunities for significant impact.

This semester, I had the honor of welcoming Case Western Reserve’s largest and most academically qualified undergraduate class. Two months later, I got to congratulate the Class of 2020 during a ceremony long delayed by COVID-19.

Along the way, I have encountered dozens of accomplished faculty members, exceptional staff, inspiring students and extraordinarily engaged alumni. While I still have much to see and learn, two points are already incontrovertible: This university’s excellence has grown exponentially since my 1981 talk, and even greater potential exists.

I cannot wait to see what we all accomplish together.

Eric Kaler’s signature

Eric W. Kaler