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Minnesota State board rejects chancellor finalists, picks interim

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Staff congratulate Devinder Malhotra
Staff congratulated Devinder Malhotra after he accepted a position as interim chancellor for the Minnesota State colleges and universities system, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017.
Riham Feshir | MPR News

Updated 2 p.m. | Posted 11:26 a.m.

The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system board of trustees Thursday rejected its three finalists for chancellor, deciding instead on an interim leader while it figures out its next steps.

Despite an extensive search that included $99,000 paid to an executive recruitment firm, board chair Michael Vekich said he didn't believe they'd found the right candidate among the finalists to be the system's next chancellor. 

Instead, the board unanimously chose Devinder Malhotra, a former St. Cloud State University provost, to serve as interim chancellor until a permanent one is found. Malhotra also once served as interim president of Metropolitan State University.

"Dr. Malhotra has a thoughtful understanding of what it means to lead and how to do so in a collaborative fashion," Vekich said. "He believes that a higher education should set a tone for the system and the tone should emanate from a shared understanding of our strategic framework. He believes that leading means empowering students, faculty and staff, engaging external stakeholders and focusing on student success."

Forty-three applications were received for the chancellor post; 10 people were selected for interviews. Eight chose to participate and three finalists were chosen. The board sought faculty, staff and student feedback and invited stakeholders to participate in forums with the candidates this week.

Vekich said the board received hundreds of comments, which helped the board with its final decision to continue the search.

"Each of the finalists had their own strengths," he added. "But as we evaluated the feedback we received from stakeholders it became increasingly clear that we have not yet found the right person to lead Minnesota State over the years ahead."

The chancellor finalists were Michael Martin, chancellor emeritus of the Colorado State University System; Keith Miller, president emeritus of Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania; and Cathy Sandeen, who has served as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and the University of Wisconsin-Extension since 2014.

Vekich said he concluded the finalists didn't have Malhotra's background and expertise to lead the system, which teaches some 400,000 students at the state's two-year colleges and regional universities.

The board didn't say when a new search will take place. 

The system has been struggling with lower student numbers in recent years — enrollment fell by about 7 percent between 2011 and 2015 — as the economy has improved.

Board members lauded Malhotra's past leadership as interim president of Metropolitan State University from 2014 to 2016 and as provost and vice president for academic affairs for St. Cloud State University prior to that. 

Malhotra restructured budgets to align with available funding, Vekich said. He created new academic initiatives and reorganized units to alight with the system's goals. 

"Dr. Malhotra put the budget on sounder footings, aligned university operations with the goals of charting the future and the metro baccalaureate plan," Vekich said. "And developed partnerships not just hear in the Twin Cities in Minnesota but also in Japan and China."

Malhotra, an economist who retired last July, flew in from Akron, Ohio, Thursday to formally accept the interim, one-year position. He was pleased with the appointment and promised to engage and seek guidance from the board, college and university presidents, staff and students.

"It'll be fair to say we are rethinking our profession," he said, noting that he admired the system's approach to shift from resource constraints to pursuing strategic goals. 

"I do not want to leave you with the impression that I have all the answers. In fact, I do not," Malhotra told the board. "However, I do want to assure you, chair Vekich, and the trustees that I'll work hard and engage with you extensively to fully understand your strategic imperatives."

Malhotra will begin the transition soon and take over as chancellor in August for Steven Rosenstone who'll retire this year.