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Wondering what to make of the twice-failed MN State chancellor search? Why Devinder Malhotra won out

Chancellor Devinder Malhotra
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra greeting those in attendance at Friday's Board of Trustees meeting.

Last Friday, the Minnesota State Board of Trustees wrapped up an extended, nationwide search for a new chancellor to oversee the system’s sprawling network of colleges and universities. After nearly two years of recruiting and vetting candidates — and publicly rejecting six finalists — they offered the job to Devinder Malhotra, the system’s interim chancellor.

Malhotra did not go through the formal search process. But his acceptance of the three-year term on Friday seems to have been widely hailed as a win for the nation’s fourth-largest system of two-year and four-year postsecondary institutions.

Malhotra’s insider experience — not only as interim chancellor, but as a provost at St. Cloud State University and as an interim president at Metropolitan State University — will likely prove useful in helping the system adapt to evolving student learning needs in the midst of increasing budgetary constraints. Perhaps most critically, he’s already made headway in forging a renewed sense of systemwide trust and transparency.

His predecessor, Steven Rosenstone, had fallen out of good relations with some key players. 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.

But why, then, did it take leadership so long to recognize a new leader in their own ranks?

There’s the fact that Malhotra had already retired once, before coming home to serve as interim chancellor. So he may not have seemed like an obvious choice for the long haul.

But Malhotra had the advantage of being able to demonstrate his leadership abilities over the past year — a trial run, of sorts, that apparently sat well with those involved in the search process. That includes Jim Grabowska, president of the university faculty union —  the Inter Faculty Organization — who sat on both the search committee for both the initial search and the reboot.

“Some may look and say, ‘Wow, twice now. You can’t find a good chancellor, or you’re ruining the reputation of the system by failing it,’” said Grabowska. “From my perspective, it really led to a good decision. So now let it rest. Let him work.”

Totaling up the search process

According to expense logs provided by Doug Anderson, a spokesperson for Minnesota State, the initial search — run through the executive search firm Storbek/Pimentel — totaled $141,566 in expenses. The bulk of this ($118,265) was billed to the search firm, which produced 43 applicants and arranged for the finalists’ travel expenses.

The second search firm, Wheless Partners, contacted more than 150 prospective candidates, and a third of them submitted applications, said Trustee Chair Michael Vekich. The firm’s services and associated travel expenses cost $114,652. Anderson says the firm will not receive any additional payments for the appointment of the interim chancellor.

As of March 1, the entire search process has cost $268,514. That figure includes fees paid to both search firms, as well as mileage and lodging for search committee members, reference checks, and advertising. Additional charge may still be pending.

Ultimately, the board went outside of the search process to select Malhotra. Given the importance of the task at hand, however, many of those who had been involved in the search process still commended the Board of Trustees for investing in a robust search process.  

In a joint press release, Students United and a number of unions representing employees in the Minnesota State system praised Malhotra, noting he “has built trust-based relationships.”

“We have sincere gratitude for the leaders on the Board of Trustees for demonstrating the courage to make a tough decision,” the release said. “We believe, without reservation, that they did the right thing and stand ready and willing to move forward.”

Ability to foster trust

Kevin Lindstrom, president of Minnesota State College Faculty — the union representing all two-year colleges in the Minnesota State system — says that getting so many groups on the same page, in support of Malhotra, is a “powerful testament” to his ability to foster trust.

“Over the course of the next three years, there are going to be issues where we disagree with Dr. Malhotra’s position on things. But it’ll be honest disagreement. It’ll be transparent — we won’t have to guess what kind of agenda is trying to be slipped by us. We won’t feel like we constantly need to be on the defensive,” Lindstrom said. “We know that his goal is the same as ours in the end — that is a system that most effectively serves the students in it and the state more broadly. You just get that from him in every interaction you have with him.”

Faical Rayani, state chair of Students United, represented the student voice on the second search committee. He says he recommended a few internal candidates for the position who were approached by the search firm, but chose not to apply. That experience, he says, signaled that the search process was inclusive.

He also says that any of the round-two finalists that the committee had put forward “could have grown into” the role. But he adds that Malhotra’s approachability and ability to say no to things he finds unreasonable without offending people makes him the best choice right now.

“He never favored any one group. He always listened to everyone,” Rayani said, reflecting on Malhotra’s time as interim chancellor. “That doesn't come out in an interview. That comes out with a track record.”

Removed from the Minnesota context — but very familiar with the dynamics of shared governance in the higher education sector — Bob Scott, author of “How University Boards Work” and former president of Adelphi University and of Ramapo College of New Jersey, says the nationwide search served an important purpose, even if it didn’t produce the board’s final pick.

“It’s not a bad thing if, even after the expense of an external search, you pick the internal person because you have concluded the interim person stands up quite well against the external competition,” he said.

But there’s a caveat, he adds: ‘It’s likely that the pool of candidates was not as strong as it might have been,” had the process not included public interviews for finalists. That public process limits the depth of the candidate field, he said, because many who qualify for the job won’t even apply because they “can’t afford to have their candidacy known.”

Brian Mitchell, co-author of “How to Run a College” and former president of Bucknell University and Washington and Jefferson College, says it’s possible that the board found “Superman in Clark Kent.” But he also raises a degree of caution when things play out this way, noting is can also signal a lack of clear expectations on the part of of the board. Nevertheless, this doesn't mean Malhotra can't succeed.

“I’ve known lots of searches where somebody on the board ends up as the president,” he said. “That can work out very well sometimes. It may be a symptom of a failed search, but it doesn't necessarily mean that it’s a symptom of a failed candidate. They may see something. If in fact they don’t see something, but they just want it to be over with, that’s a genuinely failed effort.”

A complex system

Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, chair of the House Higher Education and Career Readiness Policy and Finance Committee, says he’s pleased with Malhotra’s appointment.

“He has not only the respect of practically everyone in the system, but he has the experience to go with it, and the interest as well,” he said, noting Malhotra will keep things positive moving forward.

All this talk of Malhotra’s likability and unifying leadership style matters because the Minnesota State system is incredibly complex. It comprises 30 community and technical colleges and seven state universities that serve more than 375,000 students across 54 campuses.

“The problem is each has their own cultural mindset,” Mitchell said, noting the tendency to move toward centralization is largely driven by the relative absence of state funds and the need to improve administrative efficiencies. “So when you’re trying to merge them together, you can do it ecoconally, you can do it politically ... but it’s very hard to look at the social and cultural side and merge them.”

Back in 1991, when former state Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe spearheaded legislation that would tie all of the state’s public postsecondary institutions together — minus the University of Minnesota, which broke off as an independent system — he knew it would take time to build a sense of unity.  But the need to create continuity for students who were struggling to get credits they’d earned and paid for at a state community college to transfer to a four-year institution was a driving factor in his decision to create Minnesota State, Moe said.

Now more than 20 years into the experiment, he says that vision, while still a work in progress, has equipped the system to better respond to current pressures, including decreased state funding, coupled with increased pressures to address affordability and adapt to the needs of a more diverse student body and technological advances.

“Because we are a system, we are much more strategically positioned to address these issues than if we were three independent systems going off on our own,” he said.  

Scott contends that the creation of Minnesota State may have had the opposite effect. “It sounds like a very large and overly complicated system,” he said. “By and large, it has been shown that that kind of large, complex organization doesn’t work in higher education. In fact, it doesn’t work in industry. Because it makes it very difficult to actually have accountability closer to the organizational units that are fulfilling the mission.”

Some competing identities

Having been immersed in the system since its establishment, Grabowska knows how nuanced the transition to a unified system has been. There are a number of competing identities: Some institutions are well established and others are relatively new; some have more diverse student bodies than others; some campuses are strongly commuter-oriented and others are more residential.

“Part of the cultures of all these institutions is a significant degree of autonomy: We know whom we serve. We know what we do. We don’t need a central administration office to make decision in that regard,” he said. “It only began to really coalesce in the last couple of years, when we began to talk about: What is the thread that at least, potentially, can run between all these institutions that would draw them together into some sort of fabric?”

At that point, the discussion turned to finding a more efficient, dependable way to address transfer credits, he said. With the growth of post-secondary enrollment options for high school students and the mobility of college students, everyone saw a need to fix a system that had become bogged down by a multitude of articulation agreements that spelled out how specific credits at one institution may, or may not, transfer to another institution.

While that task has since been completed, Malhotra is still stepping into a difficult role. To assist him in setting priorities and laying out action plans, Vekich announced Friday that the board will soon be creating a strategic taskforce.

“What keeps this board up at night is the financial viability and our ability to articulate the value of our colleges and universities to students, their families, and all of the people of Minnesota at a time when higher education is under increased scrutiny for how it delivers for its students,” Vekich said. “Therefore, the board has high aspirations for the work the chancellor must accomplish if we are to respond to an ever changing higher education and workforce landscape.”

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Comments (1)

Devinder will be a great Chancellor

Devinder has the 10 most important qualities to achieve success as Chancellor:
1. He is the best listener I've ever worked with
2. He asks questions constructively
3. He generally takes notes while you're talking
4. He has a quiet but relentlessly constructive style
5. His ability to put even small ideas into a larger context is very helpful.
6. He seems devoted to the achievable, the doable, the gettable, the knowable.
7. He has mastered the art of relentless, incremental, constructive, positive progress.
8. His suggestions tend to trigger discussion rather than opposition.
9. He seems to always be seeking yes, progress and sensible solutions.
10. He is simply one of the nicest people you'll ever meet.