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Steven Rosenstone is well-versed in elections, cultural affairs and the arts. But now he also speaks easily of engineering, conveyer belts and precision manufacturing.
That new knowledge, gained through trips to technical colleges across the state, will be important for Rosenstone, who becomes chancellor of the massive Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system Monday.
It will be his job to mold the complex system of two-year colleges and four-year universities in a way that grapples with swelling enrollment and calls to educate a larger share of the workforce -- all with falling state funding.
"Rosenstone is going to be forced to innovate, whether he likes it or not," said Greg Mulcahy, president of the Minnesota State College Faculty. "And I think he likes it."
The colleges and universities are ready, many faculty members and presidents said. Outgoing Chancellor James McCormick brought stability to a system pieced together from three different ones.
Now that MnSCU has settled, Rosenstone might be freer to shake it up.
A decade ago, after a quick succession of short-term chancellors, it remained clear that the system of seven state universities and 25 community and technical colleges had been formed by a forced merger, rather than a perfect union.
"It was not just dysfunction -- it was outright big noise and confusion," said Anne Temte, then a dean at a community college in the system. Temte left MnSCU and spent 10 years at a school in Washington state, then returned.
A surprise awaited her.
"Things were orderly," said Temte, now president of Northland Community and Technical College in East Grand Forks and Thief River Falls. "Colleges and universities had respect for each other."
Now that there's order, Rosenstone can "maybe mess it up a little bit more with dynamic ideas," she said. "Things can't be as they have been."
Rosenstone recounted how one president told him that "we have yet to really reap the full benefits of being a system." Rosenstone wants to change that, creating ways campuses can work together to offer a better education than any one could alone. That might save money, too.
While in the past such talk might have worried campus leaders who guard their autonomy, Rosenstone heard much more excitement than concern, he said. "There's a sense that they've kind of hit the wall in how much more they can cut."
Rosenstone stressed that he's the "facilitator" in that conversation. Presidents, he said, will bring the ideas.
Rosenstone, 59, comes to MnSCU from the University of Minnesota, where he was vice president of scholarly and cultural affairs. Before that, he was dean of the College of Liberal Arts, the U's biggest college.
He's an elections expert who earned his Ph.D. in political science at the University of California, Berkeley. He taught at Yale University and the University of Michigan. He speaks fluent Spanish.
In interviewing Rosenstone for the job, college presidents and members of the Board of Trustees repeatedly asked: What do you know about vocational and technical education?
Not much, he admitted. But he was confident he could learn.
"I had been a little bit nervous," said Temte of Rosenstone's selection. "Roll forward six months, and I think he has become a real believer of community and technical education."
Rosenstone has been learning in person. Since his February appointment, he has visited 28 of the public system's campuses and logged about 4,000 miles. He started with two schools he knew the least about -- technical and community colleges in Alexandria and St. Cloud.
After stepping onto a few shop floors, lunching with local business leaders and donning a hard hat, Rosenstone now drills the importance of technical education and shares some insights.
For one, he's learned that "the cost associated with technical education is very high."
"It's not like a philosophy course, where you can add another 20 seats and not much changes," he said. Technical education requires expensive facilities, labs and mannequins.
"So the assumption that everything in MnSCU is cheaper, that a MnSCU education is a cheaper education -- that's simply not the case. And you don't understand that until you visit and see the technology that's required to prepare students for the jobs that they need to be ready for."
Lessons on campus
Last week, Rosenstone's visits brought him closer to home, to Metropolitan State University in St. Paul. He and a group of students -- most of them working adults, several of them veterans -- sat at a big round conference table in a room with an expansive view of downtown.
"Please help me get smart," he said, smiling, "or smarter."
Students launched into their concerns: I won't graduate on time because the courses I needed weren't available when I needed them. My adviser has hundreds of other students to worry about. Some instructors hold office hours when most students are working.
"I'm hearing you say..." Rosenstone often began, repeating back ideas. Then he'd ask questions: "Where I want to push you is... ."
Earlier that day, Rosenstone met with vice presidents and program leaders, who highlighted the university's accomplishments. One noted that at Metro State, the share of students of color continuing on to their second year is nearly equal to that of white students.
Rosenstone turned to her. "So, what's the secret?" he said. "How do we scale that up?"
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168