Dr. Malhotra’s legacy

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This editorial raises a good point when it says “When one executive search exercise ends with none of the finalists getting the top job, higher-education observers generally shrug and say ‘these things happen.’ When back-to-back searches produce the same result, alarm bells sound. They signal that something may be amiss in the way Minnesota State’s sprawling 54-campus system is viewed in the nation’s higher-education marketplace, or in the way in which it approaches executive recruitment.”

The Strib editorial board is right that that’s how people should react. I doubt that that’s how Mr. Vekich and Co. reacted, though. I suspect that the Trustees were frightened by the quality of the second group of candidates. Ricardo Azziz and Neal Cohen were men of accomplishments. They were leaders, too. That’s the last thing the Trustees wanted. Hiring a man with accomplishments and leadership abilities carried with it a substantial risk.

In the Trustees’ minds, they worried that Cohen or Azziz might blow up Minnesota State, aka MnSCU, because it’s a dysfunctional system. These candidates came from outside their system. That’s why they turned to Dr. Malhotra. He’s a system insider, a don’t-rock-the-boat type. Most importantly, he isn’t a change agent. That’s why the Trustees can relax. The system is preserved.

The editorial board insists that these questions need to be asked:

Why were the candidates identified by the search committees and their hired consultants not better suited to Minnesota State’s leadership needs? Was the $270,000 cost of the two searches warranted? Is the search process too unwieldy? Is faculty influence too great over a decision that is ultimately a governing board responsibility? What made the chancellor’s position insufficiently attractive to top higher-education talent from around the country? Is the scale and complexity of the nation’s fourth-largest higher-education system seen negatively in the marketplace? Does the propensity of state politicians to meddle in the system’s management make candidates wary?

Those aren’t the questions that need to be asked. Further, the Trustees shouldn’t ask questions about the search because they shouldn’t exist.

What’s required is for Minnesota’s parents, students and politicians to ask whether a system that ill-advised when it was created in the 1990s is the right system for the 21st Century. Why haven’t Minnesota State’s universities produced the high-tech workforce Minnesota industries will need for the next generation? Why are Minnesota-born students who attend 4-year institutions choosing universities in North Dakota, Wisconsin and other states instead of Minnesota?

It might be that Minnesota State is dysfunctional. It’s time to examine what Minnesota needs in terms of education, in terms of skills and in terms of economic policies to be competitive in the 21st Century. Dr. Malhotra won’t ask those questions. The Trustees haven’t asked those questions.

Finally, will Dr. Malhotra pick a president for St. Cloud State that will turn the University around? Or will he pick another steady-as-she-goes candidate that will preside over the University’s ultimate demise? I’m fearful that he’ll pick the latter, not the former.