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New leaders at Minn. universities aim for more collaboration

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Eric Kaler
In this file photo from November 17, 2010, Eric Kaler answers questions during a public forum at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Kaler took over last week as president of the university.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

There's always been talk about greater cooperation and efficiency between the state's two public higher education systems, the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. 

But many people say now is the perfect time to take steps toward real and genuine collaboration — mainly because new leaders are taking over at both systems this summer, potentially opening the door to new relationships.  

Eric Kaler began his new job as president of the University of Minnesota just a few days ago. And Steven Rosenstone will take over as chancellor of MnSCU in August.

  It just so happens that Rosenstone has served as a vice president at the University of Minnesota, so he'll have an insider's view of both systems. 

Kaler, the new president of the University of Minnesota, says he's in favor of more cooperation with MnSCU.  Kaler doesn't have any specifics on how that should happen at this point, but says he's already discussed it with Rosenstone. 

"[He] and I have had good conversations," he said. "I think both of us are committed to working together to sharpen our delivery of higher education to the state, and I look forward to being a partner with him in investigating how we can do what we do more effectively."

For his part, Rosenstone says he has some ideas on how MnSCU and the University of Minnesota could save money together. Rosenstone says there's an opportunity for the two to share what he calls "backroom operations." 

Steven Rosenstone
Steven Rosenstone speaks to reporters after he was chosen to be the next chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges and University system on Feb. 2, 2011.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

"Business operations, infrastructure, the way we handle financial operations, facilities, technology, libraries and the like," said Rosenstone. "That does not in any way create a problem in the very distinct missions of the two systems."

Rosenstone says it just makes sense for the two systems to cooperate.  And he says it's something taxpayers and lawmakers are going to expect more of in the future. 

"There's growing pressure to find new ways in which we can serve more students, serve them better, but at a lower price," he said. 

It's also a good time for cooperation simply because shrinking state aid for higher education makes sharing resources necessary. David Larson, a member of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents, wants both systems to start exploring what they can do together. 

"Just intuitively, you've got to believe that there are some opportunities there that we haven't uncovered," said Larson. 

  The two systems are cooperating in some ways already. For example, they have 200 academic programs and partnerships.  Students are able to transfer most credits between the two systems.  And they share some online teaching tools and library resources. 

  MnSCU spokeswoman Melinda Voss says the two systems are always looking for ways to work together.  

"It's a very natural alliance," she said. "These things have been going on for a very long time, and I expect that they'll continue to go on and we'll continue to look for new opportunities."

  State Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville,  leads a committee on higher education at the Capitol. She says legislative action requiring such cooperation is an option. 

"As we move into the future that may be things we look at ... things we facilitate at the legislative level for them to work together," she said.  

  Even so, Fischbach says at this point there are no plans to require the University of Minnesota  and MnSCU to share resources.  She prefers the two higher education systems figure out on their own how best to collaborate.