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As Minnesota State looks to the future, an identity crisis is rekindled

Some worry that a new initiative, “Reimagining Minnesota State,” isn’t all that different from an old initiative, a plan that soured relations between faculty and the system’s former president.

Chancellor Devinder Malhotra
Chancellor Devinder Malhotra is conducting a lengthy research and listening tour aimed at finding ways to improve Minnesota State amid the state’s changing demographics and economy.
MinnPost file photo by Erin Hinrichs

When Devinder Malhotra was picked last year as the new chancellor of the sprawling Minnesota State school system, the former St. Cloud State provost was heralded as a bridge builder with support from the Board of Trustees and faculty.

That trust was welcomed by many following a pair of failed national searches for a new system leader to replace Steven Rosenstone, who retired in 2017 after a tenure marked by clashes with faculty unions. The board chose Malhotra, who had been serving as interim chancellor, in March of last year.

Now, less than a year into his tenure, Malhotra is testing that coalition with his first major project: a lengthy research and listening tour aimed at finding ways to improve Minnesota State amid the state’s changing demographics and economy. The system of seven four-year universities and 30 community and technical colleges serves about 375,000 students each year and is by far Minnesota’s largest institution of higher education.

To Malhotra and Michael Vekich, chairman of the Board of Trustees, “Reimagining Minnesota State” is critical work to maintain the relevancy and effectiveness of a system that has seen enrollment drop and tuition rise in recent years.

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Yet for some, the initiative smacks of another push for change in the not-so-distant past: “Charting the Future,” the 2012 Rosenstone-led initiative that caused bitter disagreements between Minnesota State’s leadership and faculty unions. By 2014, that relationship was so frayed that faculty groups from all seven four-year universities lodged votes of no confidence in Rosenstone.

Matthew Filner, an associate professor of political science at Metropolitan State University who vocally opposed Rosenstone at the time, is among those worried that the new initiative isn’t all that new. “I suspect, based on the past and based on who’s doing the work, that this is going to be maybe a more artfully advanced version of ‘Charting the Future,’” Filner told MinnPost.

How a past shot at reform turned sour

With “Charting the Future,” Rosenstone set out to make Minnesota State more affordable for students and more accessible for Minnesota’s growing population of racial minorities while streamlining and connecting the system’s 54 disparate campuses.

But the initiative quickly ran into opposition. Union leaders accused the administration of trying to sacrifice quality in order to slash costs, centralize work like curriculum and fashion schools more as training programs for businesses rather than learning institutions. Talks further soured when it was revealed Rosenstone had paid $2 million to hire the consulting giant McKinsey & Company to help guide the process. Faculty unions feared they had been cut out of the planning altogether, which the administration denied.

After the no-confidence votes, Gov. Mark Dayton held tens of millions of state dollars in limbo to force the sides into negotiation over “Charting the Future.” Faculty and individual schools eventually won a much stronger influence in the outcome.

In some ways, “Reimagining Minnesota State” has begun under a similar pretense. Malhotra told MinnPost that Minnesota is experiencing a deep disruption in higher education led by forces such as technology and the retirement of baby boomers in the workforce.

He noted that Minnesota’s population is becoming more racially diverse, and that Minnesota State serves more people of color than any other higher education system in the state. Plus, state investment in the system has decreased over the years, leading to higher tuition for students.

Data provided by Minnesota State shows students who are racial minorities graduate at lower rates and are employed in fields related to their studies less often than their white counterparts.

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“It’s not that we are not good academic institutions, or we are not fully functional, effective institutions,” Malhotra said. “But the question is the rate at which we have to change and the scope at which we have to offer our education has altered dramatically because of the context in which education operates.”

The “Reimagining” process began in December, and its fact-gathering phase will last until about May. That portion of the project includes panels and presentations led by people who Minnesota State Board Chair Vekich called “thought leaders,” along with feedback from faculty and staff at the schools. After that, Minnesota State will launch it’s plan for implementing what it learned.

Briefing papers prepared by Minnesota State for the initiative offer some hint at what ideas the administration is considering, such as faster credentialing programs and more online learning. There are ideas similar to programs like “pathways,” a quick training pipeline system partnered with an employer that has been championed by Hennepin County government. (Minnesota State does already have some programs in this vein.)

Malhotra and Vekich have taken pains to emphasize there are no predetermined outcomes of their push for change, and that they have tried to include a wide range of input from staff and faculty across the system. But they also said they aren’t afraid to alter Minnesota State, which Malhotra said can be risk averse.

“I think we’re way too early on to talk about how large in scope it will be,” Vekich said. “But clearly, all things on are on the table.”

Union skepticism

Some faculty and union groups still see “Reimagining” as an effort to appease business leaders and weaken teaching to deliver fast and cheap credentials.

Of the 10-member advisory group guiding the initiative, Matt Williams, vice president of the union representing faculty at the two-year colleges, noted two have ties to the Itasca Project, an influential business organization that consulted with McKinsey & Company to produce in 2012 a vision for higher education with similarities to the initial “Charting the Future” strategy. Filner said he saw echoes of the Itasca Project in “Reimagining,” too. “I’ve always been deeply concerned that what they’re pushing basically is a degree without any learning,” Filner said of past reform efforts at Minnesota State.

Williams has published op-eds in the group’s internal publication slamming “Reimagining” as a continuation of “Charting the Future.” He told MinnPost traditional liberal arts learning prepares students for an economy in which they might switch jobs several times, but also for other aspects of their life.

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“It’s not just workforce development,” Williams said. “We are training the whole sort of life of citizens of Minnesota to participate in the workforce but also to participate in democracy, to participate in decisions about their communities.”

Brent Jeffers, president of the Inter Faculty Organization, the union of faculty in four-year universities, voiced general concerns about any effort to trend away from liberal arts education or toward centralization of the Minnesota State system.

The briefing papers for “Reimagining” and some panelists have praised the upsides of liberal arts teachings at times, and Malhotra said he believed the notion of pitting workforce development against liberal arts education was a false dichotomy. He insisted neither he nor business leaders wants to abandon rigorous liberal arts education. “I don’t think we have to choose one over the other,” Malhotra said. “The employers have again and again told us that they don’t want our graduates to be prepared only for the entry level first job.”

But he also said Minnesota State needs to be attuned to business leaders in part to help ensure their courses are relevant “to the work and life of our students.”

Malhotra has won support from faculty for other parts of his early agenda, including a request for $246 million in the state’s upcoming two-year budget to pay for maintaining classes, boosting financial aid and upgrading technology.

But Filner said “Reimagining” could still prove a contentious process if it trends the way “Charting the Future” did. “I am not going to bend on the fundamental principle that we are educating students for their lifetime,” he said. “And we’re not going to sacrifice quality for price.”