Separate, distinct, but unified: New MnSCU chancellor has task set before him

Steven Rosenstone
Steven Rosenstone, right, talks with a member of the board of trustees of MnSCU after a public job interview on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2011.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Today is the first day on the job for Steven Rosenstone, the new chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

Rosenstone takes over the relatively young system of 31 schools. If MnSCU itself was a student, it would be 16 -- still be two years away from heading to college.

And like any teenager, the MnSCU system is concerned about its image, something Rosenstone hopes to improve.

Long before he moved into the chancellor's office, Rosentone was essentially on the job, visiting MnSCU campuses around the state.

"I've been on the road for about four months, and I have logged about 4,000 miles."

At Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, he sat down for a chat with about a dozen students.

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"The time is yours. Please help me get smart, or smarter," he told the group.

The students shared concerns over the shortage of space on campus, the decline in state aid for higher education, and the rising cost of tuition.

Rosenstone asked questions, and promised to find answers. He doesn't expect those to come in the first weeks in his new position.

Steven Rosenstone
August 1 is Steven Rosenstone's first day as chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

"I'm genuinely excited about doing this. These are things I care deeply about."

Rosenstone was chosen earlier this year to lead the MnSCU system. He'll take over for retiring chancellor James McCormick, who headed up MnSCU for a decade.

Rosenstone comes to MnSCU after 15 years at the state's other public higher education system, the University of Minnesota.

After rising through the academic ranks at Yale University and the University of Michigan, Rosenstone was hired at the U of M as dean of its college of liberal arts. He later became vice president in charge of scholarly and cultural affairs.

Armed with insider knowledge of the U of M, Rosenstone promises to help the two work closely together. Just don't expect him to remake MnSCU with the U as a model.

"My goal is to not make the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system look like the University of Minnesota," he said. "We have very different missions and very different roles to play in the state of Minnesota."

Rosenstone's goal is to improve the quality of every school in the system. He wants MnSCU's four-year universities to rank high on the list for undergrads, and not be seen as schools to fall back on in case students don't get into the University of Minnesota.

"That our colleges and universities become the destination of choice," he said. "It's the place (students) want to go for their college education."

SCARRED, BUT NOT FOR LIFE

Fading but lingering scars over the way MnSCU was created may still be the biggest barrier for Rosenstone's effort.

In the early 1990s, the Legislature joined the state's technical schools, community colleges and universities into one system, and MnSCU was born.

But not everyone was on board with the change. Some faculty at the once-separate university system weren't pleased with being lumped in with the state's two-year colleges.

Retiring MnSCU chancellor James McCormick was hired in 2001, just six years into MnSCU's existence. He worked to bring the system together.

"I think maybe the individual tech colleges and community colleges and universities weren't all united about pulling together," McCormick said. "So it was a rough birth."

Ten years later, the MnSCU system is much more united, McCormick said.

The desire for schools to be recognized for their differences hasn't disappeared; rather, the individual colleges want those distinctions emphasized.

HIGHLIGHT THE DIFFERENCE

That's evident in the city of Winona, where Southeast Technical College and Winona State University sit just a few miles apart.

For nearly two decades, the slogan at Southeast Technical has been, "Get in, get out, get on with it." It emphasizes the college's mission to train students as quickly as possible, and get them into a job.

One example is the school's cosmetology department. Here, instructors guide students as they style customers' hair in a salon on campus. This is real workplace experience for students. They can get through the program in about two semesters and begin working immediately.

"Rosenstone's biggest challenge is going to be to get to know the different levels of institutions within our system."

Many programs at Southeast Technical are typical of a MnSCU technical college -- auto body repair, nursing, accounting and massage therapy.

But the school also offers distinct programs, such as musical instrument repair, that are only available in a few places around the country, said President Jim Johnson.

"Chancellor Rosenstone's biggest challenge is going to be to get to know the different levels of institutions within our system," he said.

At Winona State University, President Judith Ramaley said Rosenstone does seem to be making an effort to understand the system.

"The three Ls. He's looking, listening and learning," she said.

Ramaley supports Rosenstone's vision to make MnSCU colleges a "destination of choice" for students. But highlighting distinctive academic programs isn't the only way to attract students, she said.

"They care about the course of study. But they care more about what it means to be here," Ramaley said. "How beautiful is the campus? How friendly are the people? How good is the reputation of the school?"

Rosenstone agrees that distinctions between MnSCU's schools are not as well known as they should be. His job, he said, will be to tell the public, students and lawmakers about what makes each college in the system unique, while making sure MnSCU moves forward as a system.

Winona State markets atmosphere alongside its programs, working to attract students with amenities such as a newly built upscale residence hall. Inside and out, it's more like a hotel than a college dorm.

Darrell Downs, a political science professor at Winona State, says he thinks there's a developing image problem for the system, despite efforts by MnSCU schools to highlight their differences. "There's something of a growing identity crisis among the state universities," said Downs, who started at Winona in the 1990s just as MnSCU was organized.

Downs said faculty and administrators understand the distinctions between colleges in the MnSCU system. But the public and lawmakers too often treat the 31 universities, colleges and technical schools as one entity, he said -- not as separate institutions with separate missions.

"If we continue to go along kind of a one-size-fits-all way of thinking from the top down, it's not going to be successful for anybody," Downs said.

Downs' challenge for Rosenstone is to identify the strengths and needs of each of the MnSCU colleges. Be supportive, but don't get in the way.

Leading by decree isn't his style, Rosenstone assures MnSCU observers.

"They're not conversations that will occur by a lighting bolt coming out of the new chancellor's office saying, 'Damn it, this is how we're going to go forward,'" Rosenstone said.

"Instead they're conversations that will occur by people working together across the system to find the best way to move forward as partners on behalf of Minnesota's future."