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Minnesota State announces three finalists in rebooted search for new chancellor

Finalists are Van Ton-Quinlivan, an executive vice chancellor at California Community Colleges; Neal Cohen, former executive vice president and CFO at ATK; and Dr. Ricardo Azziz, chief officer of academic health and hospital affairs at the State University of New York.

The search for a new permanent chancellor to oversee the Minnesota State system of colleges and universities, formerly known as MnSCU, may soon be over. Today, the Board of Trustees announced the names of three finalists: Van Ton-Quinlivan, an executive vice chancellor at California Community Colleges; Neal Cohen, former executive vice president and CFO at ATK; and Dr. Ricardo Azziz, chief officer of academic health and hospital affairs at the State University of New York.

The search process kicked off nearly two years ago. In the spring of 2016, Steven Rosenstone announced his plans to retire from the position once his contract expired in July 2017. His tenure as chancellor began in 2011 and concluded steeped in controversy.

Unions representing faculty in the system had refused to support his “Charting the Future” plan for reforming the system. In November 2015, faculty leaders had sent trustees a written request to dismiss Rosenstone, claiming he’d been “alarmingly divisive and punitive” and was neither transparent nor honest.

Others lauded his efforts for attempting to steer such a complex higher education system in a more cohesive, collaborative direction.

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“I think that chancellor Rosenstone, with his Charting the Future plan, was [moving] in the right direction,” Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, said in a phone interview Monday. “He was encouraging collaboration within the system.”

Minnesota State is made up of 30 community and technical colleges and seven state universities that make up the fourth-largest system of two-year and four-year postsecondary institutions in the nation. Across all 54 of its campuses, the system serves more than 375,000 students each year.

In looking for a fresh start, of sorts, the board is under a great deal of pressure to hire someone who’s capable of repairing a sense of trust among faculty and steering the complex system in a unified direction — no small task in the midst of declining enrollment.

A brief recap

A first attempt at finding Rosenstone’s replacement brought in three finalists who fielded questions from trustees, students and faculty at a public forum, in February 2017. Ultimately, the board rejected all three candidates, choosing to reboot the search rather than extend an offer.

“Each of the finalists had their own strengths,” Board Chair Michael Vekich, told MPR. “But as we evaluated the feedback we received from stakeholders it became increasingly clear that we have not yet found the right person to lead Minnesota State over the years ahead.”

In the same breath, they unanimously chose Devinder Malhotra, a former St. Cloud State University provost, to serve as interim chancellor while they continued the search.

The Pioneer Press reports that the initial failed search cost $118,265 in fees paid to Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates, an executive search firm that says it specializes in higher education recruitment for colleges and universities. There were 43 applicants, 10 of whom were selected for an initial round of interviews.

To lead the do-over, a new 22-member search advisory committee was created last September. The committee includes a new search firm hired to help recruit qualified candidates. The new firm, Wheless Partners, will get between $60,000 and $130,000 — depending on the new chancellor’s first-year salary — as well as up to $45,00 for travel and advertising.

According to minutes from a September board of trustees report (the only record of past board meetings, since staff say they do not keep an archive of video or audio files), trustees discussed the philosophy of growing their own candidates, especially with respect to presidential searches.

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Current policy dictates that interim candidates cannot apply for the position. However, Vekich pointed out there is precedence for appointing an interim. It’s unclear, at this point, whether the board may still consider extending an offer to Malhotra.

Meet the finalists

Since 2011, Ton-Quinlivan has been working in a leadership role at California Community College — primarily as vice chancellor of workforce and economic development, before becoming executive vice chancellor of workforce and digital futures this past December.

Van Ton-Quinlivan
Van Ton-Quinlivan

The California Community College system ranks as the largest higher-education system in the nation, encompassing 114 community colleges and serving more than 2.1 million students.

Prior to working in higher education administration, she spent nearly five years working in management positions for Pacific Gas & Electric in San Francisco. While there, she launched a professional pathway program aimed at getting more veterans and underserved communities into energy-sector jobs. This effort involved fostering collaboration among industry leaders, educators and unions, among others.

Ton-Quinlivan has two master’s degrees: one in business administration from Stanford University, and another in education policy from Stanford University. She completed the International Women’s Forum Executive Program at Harvard University. She also has two years of post-secondary teaching experience, as an adjunct faculty instructor at DeAnza College.

Neal Cohen
Neal Cohen

Cohen’s more recent work experience, as executive vice president and CFO at ATK — an American defense company — began in 2012 and ended in 2015. Throughout his career, he’s primarily held upper-management positions in the tech and airline industries. In his roles at US Airways, Northwest Airlines and General Motors, he gained experience working with labor unions. He also helped structure the Delta-Northwest merger.

In terms of experience working in the higher-education sector, Cohen served as president of Laureate Education, the largest network of for-profit higher education institutions, from 2008 to 2011. In his role, he oversaw 55 institutions located in more than 20 countries. He holds a master’s in business from the University of Chicago.

Dr. Ricardo Azziz
Dr. Ricardo Azziz

Azziz’s primary employer — the State University of New York, commonly known as SUNY — ranks as the largest urban public higher education system in the nation, with 64 campuses, 11 senior colleges, seven community colleges and five graduate and professional schools.

In addition to serving as the system’s chief officer of academic health and hospital affairs, Azziz currently works as both a research and a clinical professor at a handful of other higher ed institutions. Simultaneously, he holds executive-level positions with two medical-consulting groups — Alaunus Global, and Azziz & Associates — and with Androgen Excess and PCOS Society, a program aimed at strengthening care for women with the disorder.   

In addition to holding an M.D. from the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, he holds a master’s in business from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Puerto Rico and is fluent in Spanish.

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Board members, college and university presidents, and members of the chancellor’s cabinet will interview candidates on Feb. 27 and 28. Each candidate will also participate in an open forum for employees and students on Feb. 28.