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McMillan takes helm at UMD

David McMillan, the new interim chancellor at the University of Minnesota Duluth, answered several Duluth News Tribune questions about his plans for the school, which he’s set to head until summer 2024.

David McMillian, the new interim chancellor at the University of Minnesota Duluth, smiles as he rests on a bench outside of the Darland Administration Building on the UMD campus
David McMillian, the new interim chancellor at the University of Minnesota Duluth, started Aug. 8.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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DULUTH — Dave McMillan’s office at the University of Minnesota Duluth is still bare-bones: a desk and chair, of course, stacks of papers here and there, mostly empty bookshelves, plus a few hockey sticks and a football signed by some of the school’s championship teams that his predecessor left attached to the walls of an adjoining conference room.

McMillan’s first day as the school’s interim chancellor was Aug. 8. He said he spent most of his first week meeting with administrators at the school, plus some regional business leaders via the city’s chamber of commerce and Apex, a Duluth-based business development organization. He’s also had a few informal meet-and-greets with facilities management staff and football players who are already on campus ahead of the new semester.

McMillan, a 1983 graduate of UMD, was a Duluth-area energy executive until 2018. He was a member of the broader University of Minnesota system’s board of regents until mid-June, when he resigned that post to pursue the interim chancellor job.

He got the job in July during a contentious meeting among his former colleagues on the board. A minority of them worried publicly about the possibility — or at least appearance — of a backroom deal between McMillan and university President Joan Gabel, who took a step back from the interim chancellor hiring process but otherwise would have overseen it. Other regents, though, dismissed those worries.

“Despite my familiarity with UMD, I have a tremendous amount to learn to successfully lead us into, and through, this transitional period,” McMillan wrote in an Aug. 8 campuswide message .

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Near the end of his first week at UMD’s helm, McMillan spoke with the Duluth News Tribune about his plans for the school he’ll lead until summer 2024. His responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What’s your vision for the university?

I don’t have all the answers, but a vision for this place is that we find enrollment equilibrium sooner rather than later.

This marketplace is oversupplied. There’s probably too many four-year public and private institutions of higher education given the fact that we’re facing a demographic decline. We’ve got a couple years of probably current level of high school graduates, maybe a little uptick, but not many in Minnesota, and then, by 2025, all the predictions are that starts to fall off. You couple some oversupply with some significant "underdemand," and we've got our work cut out for us.

New Minnesota Duluth Chancellor David McMillian ponders a question while sitting under photographs of former chancellors in a conference room on the fifth floor of the Darland Administration Building on the UMD campus
New University of Minnesota Duluth interim Chancellor David McMillian ponders a question while sitting under photographs of former chancellors in the Darland Administration Building on Friday.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

And I think a second wing of that vision is that we’ve really got to invest in student success. As we recruit students into this place that may not be as well-prepared for college, we've got to make sure, when we get them in the door here, we keep them and we set them up to succeed.

That translates to investment, I think, in advising, student support. We're very cognizant of not bringing students in and creating a lot of debt and then not getting them out the door in an appropriate amount of time.

Research is going to play an important part in this. You can’t go anywhere else in the state and get a degree where research opportunities are part and parcel of it. You can go to the Twin Cities, and we would certainly know lots of kids who are going to want to go there, but I’d like to see them come here and have the kind of class sizes we can provide and the exceptional faculty we have here, this outdoor setting, and tackle some research, get to know what it means to get a degree from a research university.

Q: Do you have any concrete steps for addressing those enrollment fluctuations or that demographic decline?

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I think I'm ahead of my skis to talk about a concrete plan. We have a strategic enrollment management plan that's been underway for a while. I'm just kind of lifting the hood on that this week and next week. I would like to defer on laying out a plan for how we get to what I like to call enrollment equilibrium, whether we can get there, but … I'm not going to accept the bottoming-out number. We're going to figure out what's realistic and then put an aspirational goal in place from that and go get these students.

New Minnesota Duluth Chancellor David McMillian answers questions during an interview
New University of Minnesota Duluth interim Chancellor David McMillian answers questions during an interview.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Q: What do you think you’ve been tasked with as chancellor?

I think the campus is ready for some fresh looks, some fresh thinking around how do we tackle some of the issues that clearly exist.

Another wing of the vision … is that we are an inclusive, welcoming, diverse campus, and we’ve got some issues in the space of what’s the climate here. … How accepting, how open, and how welcoming are we?

I believe that groundwork is very, very good there, but some of the groups that are set up from an administrative standpoint to manage that probably need a significant refresh. We've got an amazing (anti-racism learning committee), and they’ve done some marvelous work.

I want to reach out and really understand that work, and there’s probably some administrative positions that need to be created to really embody that and move it forward.

I think one mandate, if I had one, is to come up with a leadership style and organizational management team that reflects some of those priorities. ...

They’re also looking for a leader who’s visible on campus. And I think I’m already delivering on that. I think you’ll find me everywhere, all the time.

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New Minnesota Duluth Chancellor David McMillian smiles as he answers questions
New University of Minnesota Duluth interim Chancellor David McMillian answers questions during an interview in the Darland Administration Building on Friday.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

There’s a general perception on campus that UMD doesn’t get its fair share, so to speak, of funding via the broader university system. Do you think that’s the case? If you do, what’s the plan, if there is one, to get the school’s fair share?

While the Twin Cities has invested up here in one-time money and some recurring money now and then, that budget model was built around a handful of assumptions. The biggest: that we could continue to grow price and quantity indefinitely.

The budget model makes UMD intolerably sensitive to enrollment. Do we need a little more of that central funding? Yeah. But that requires a reset of that budget and the assumptions underlying it. That is Joan Gabel’s department.

With that in mind, what’s the plan for your working relationship with Joan Gabel, especially in light of the dust-up — for lack of a better word — over your appointment last month?

I’m looking forward to a robust and very, very productive relationship with President Gabel, her senior team, and certainly all of my senior team, in how we interact with them.

I am past the … “dust-up.” I’m a forward-looking guy and forward-looking person and I think my senior team is, as well. It’s natural for the campus to still be asking questions about that, but most everybody up here in Duluth, I think, had moved on well before it.

The Board of Regents voted 9-2 despite allegations of impropriety, or at least the appearance of it.

What’s the plan to retain faculty at UMD, especially non-white faculty?

They’ve got to feel welcome once they get here, so recruitment’s a big piece of that. There’s systemwide initiatives and on-campus initiatives focused on recruiting faculty of color, and I’m going to double down on that. That’s going to be a hallmark of what I want to see us do.

We’ve got to look at pay. I was championing that as a regent because, historically, there has been a sense, and, I think, objective evidence depending on who you compare us to, that our faculty have been underpaid. But we need to make sure the market comparators are correct. Who are we comparing ourselves to?

If we’ve got inequities in pay relative to the market, we’ll fix them, or we’ll do our best to fix them.

New Minnesota Duluth Chancellor David McMillian listens to a question
New University of Minnesota Duluth interim Chancellor David McMillian started Aug. 8.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

What’s your assessment of faculty and student morale on campus thus far?

I don’t know that I can speak to student morale. I like to think it’s pretty good.

I want to understand it. If there’s issues, then I’ve got to know what those are. I think that I don’t have much in the way of data points to work from there, yet.

Students probably, for the most part, want to be in a dorm and walking to school in the morning, walking through the tunnels or the skyways to get to their classes and hanging out with people in person rather than being remote in mom and dad’s basement. That generates a fair amount, I think, of enthusiasm and excitement for the year ahead.

Make no mistake about it: The challenge with staff and faculty is that there’s some malaise. I don’t think it’s unique to us, though.

In September 2020, a group of UMD faculty called for the school to institute a vice chancellor of equity and diversity, hire a “cluster” of faculty who are Black, Indigenous, Latino or Latina, and require undergrads to take a course on race and social justice. Do you want to do that?

We need an institutional level, much more permanent, office to lead that. I’m not ready to state what that is: what the office is, what the title is, where it sits.

The group wants more diverse hires, a required course on race and social justice and a chief diversity officer.

Do we need to really institutionalize that and create a central place where the campus can look to and, in all likelihood, reports directly to me? I don’t know yet. We’ll see, but that’s important.

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Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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