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Minnesota State has a new chancellor: its interim chancellor

Devinder Malhotra said he had not applied for the permanent chancellor position, intending to retire after the school system completed its job search.

Newly appointed Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra congratulated by his wife, Laura, left.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

Today, the board of trustees overseeing the Minnesota State system of colleges and universities, formerly known as MnSCU, announced an unexpected — yet familiar — pick for its new chancellor: Devinder Malhotra.

Their selection concludes a lengthy search process that began nearly two years ago, when Steven Rosenstone announced his plans to retire from the chancellor position once his contract expired in July 2017.

An initial attempt to find a new chancellor failed after the board rejected three finalists who had all completed public interviews. Instead, they appointed Malhotra, a former St. Cloud State University provost, to serve as interim chancellor while they rebooted the search.

The second round of the search wrapped up earlier this week, with three new finalists participating in public forums. Ultimately, the board rejected all three candidates.

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In Friday’s meeting, Board Chair Michael Vekich made the motion to appoint the man seated to his left: Malhotra.

While Vekich thanked everyone who had been involved in the search process — including the candidates — he said that in reviewing feedback collected from Minnesota State employees, students and community members, it had “become increasingly clear that we had not found among the finalists the right person to lead Minnesota State over the next few years.”

In justifying the move, Vekich praised Malhotra’s demonstrated understanding of the system and ability to “hit the ground running.”

“He has led the system with calm, warmth, wit, humor and heart,” Vekich said. “As interim chancellor, Dr. Malhotra used these qualities to inspire calm in others, bringing people together. He encouraged them to move past previous challenges to see what’s possible and to solve problems. Frankly, he has performed brilliantly as interim chancellor. He has never been a mere placeholder. Instead, he has kept his foot on the gas.”

The motion passed unanimously, with just two board members not present to vote. Vekich said the appointment would be for a 3-year term. The remaining details of Malhotra’s contract have not yet been made public.

The grow-your-own nomination

Malhotra’s appointment comes as the Minnesota State system is facing a significant amount of financial stress, coupled with declining enrollment. These challenges must be addressed in a way that brings multiple schools — which have interest and cultures of their own — together, so that the system can move forward, cohesively, as intended by state lawmakers who established the system in 1995.

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.

Malhotra has the advantage of having served in a number of different capacities within the system. Prior to serving as interim chancellor, he served as interim president at Metropolitan State University from 2014-2016, during what Vekich dubbed as “a challenging time in the university’s history.” During the prior five years, he’d served as  provost and vice president for academic affairs at St. Cloud State University.

Before he joined the Minnesota State system, Malhotra had served as a dean at the University of Southern Maine  and in multiple leadership positions at the University of Akron. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Kansas State University.

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In accepting his appointment, Malhotra told the board he was “humbled and grateful” for the confidence they had placed in him.

“All my life I’ve been an accidental administrator,” he said. “In that sense, I thrive in situations which call for change leadership and change management.”

He renewed his commitment to helping the board achieve their goals, and to leading the system through a critical period of adaptation — to new ways of communicating and learning and to new student demographics. Looking forward, he laid out a number of priorities.

“All these changes will require for us to rethink our programmatic structures, our curricular designs, our modes of delivery. It will require us to share always and embrace change with all of its challenges and risks,” he said. “We need to be bold and courageous. And we need to rethink our organizational structures, our approach to supporting students, and the way we allocate our resources. Add to this the new budget realities, the increasing disinvestment in higher education, and our need to reaffirm our value proposition in a very clear, distinct and persuasive manner.”

While that to-do list could seem overwhelming, he expressed a great deal of confidence in “our capacity and resiliency as a system” to move things forwards.

In an interview with MinnPost after the board meeting, Malhotra said he had decided not to apply for the chancellor position, from the get-go, because he had been “enamored by the prospect of retirement.” He and his wife, Laura, had taken some time to travel abroad, to places like Scandinavia, New Zealand and Scotland.

But when he got a call, asking him to consider coming back to serve as interim during such a crucial juncture, Malhotra says he was ready to get back to work.

“The reason why I failed retirement is that — it may not come across, given the enormity of our challenges and the hard work it requires — but even during that hard wok, I’m having a lot of fun,” he said during the interview, adding he finds this work very energizing. “Retirement is no longer anywhere on my horizon. I’m just focused on the next years and where the system ought to be and how we will get there.”