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Minnesota State system rejects 3 finalists, selects interim chancellor

Devinder Malhotra. Courtesy of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities

ST. PAUL—A second nationwide search in as many years has again failed to produce a new chancellor for the Minnesota State higher education system.

Trustees on Friday, March 2, committed to three more years under Devinder Malhotra, a former state university administrator who was plucked from retirement last year to be interim chancellor.

"He has performed brilliantly as interim chancellor. He has never been a mere placeholder," trustees chairman Michael Vekich said before the board voted unanimously to lift Malhotra's interim label.

The 70-year-old Malhotra had been St. Cloud State University provost and later interim president of Metropolitan State University.

"I guess I failed retirement. I'm having too much fun," he said Friday.

Faculty union leaders, who often clashed with Steven Rosenstone before he retired as chancellor last year, cheered Malhotra's appointment.

"Best possible outcome," said Kevin Lindstrom, who heads the college faculty union. "He's done a lot in the last few months to build the foundation for a lot of meaningful progress."

Jim Grabowska, president of the university faculty union, said it took courage for trustees to say again that the search didn't produce the best candidate.

"When you have the right guy, you've got to keep him," he said. "I'm ecstatic."

Vekich said the Alabama search firm Wheless Partners contacted over 150 prospects, and one-third of them applied for the job.

Earlier this week, the three finalists came to St. Paul for private and public interviews: Ricardo Azziz, 59, chief officer of academic health and hospital affairs for the State University of New York system; Van Ton-Quinlivan, 49, executive vice chancellor of workforce and digital futures for the California Community Colleges; and Neal Cohen, 57, previously an airline finance executive and president of the for-profit Laureate Education.

But as was the case in February 2017, Vekich said none was the right fit for the job.

"As we evaluated the feedback we received from our stakeholders, it became increasingly clear that we had not found among the finalists the right person to lead Minnesota State over the next few years," Vekich said.

The search firm contract called for a $60,000 minimum fee, plus up to $45,000 for travel and advertising reimbursement.

Last year's search, by Storbeck/Pimentel, produced 43 applicants and cost the system $118,265.

Minnesota State is a system of seven public state universities and 30 colleges with some 375,000 students on 54 campuses. The schools have been under one umbrella since 1995.

Rosenstone was a University of Minnesota vice president and former liberal arts dean when he was hired in 2011.

During his six years, the system pushed its colleges and universities to work more closely together, through credit-transfer agreements and more shared staff and services.

But Minnesota State has been battling to get its finances in order as enrollment has declined and lawmakers have limited tuition increases.

Vekich said the system's money problems and struggle to articulate the system's value to stakeholders keep trustees up at night.

Along with the chancellor appointment, Vekich announced Friday he would assemble a task force to evaluate barriers to student success and recommend changes to Charting the Future, which was Rosenstone's strategic plan.

Malhotra said Friday the system will remain focused on student success, financial sustainability, and diversity, equity and inclusion.

A Lowertown St. Paul resident with his wife since 2014, he said he's traveled to all but two of the system's 54 campuses as interim chancellor.

"It's very hard work, but I think given our goals and objectives and given how the state of Minnesota and our students are dependent on our work, that creates a certain element of energy and excitement, which keeps me going," he said.

Malhotra is making $350,000 this year. He said he has agreed to terms on the new three-year contract, which will start Aug. 1.

However, a spokesman for the system said later that they "will be working towards" a new contract.

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