For the second time, the search for a new chancellor at the Minnesota State colleges and universities system has taken an unexpected turn. Devinder Malhotra, who was named interim chancellor a year ago after a search process failed to produce an acceptable candidate, was named permanent chancellor Friday after a second search’s three final candidates were also spurned by the board of trustees.
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.
We hope Minnesota State’s governing board hears that alarm over the chorus of approval that followed the announcement that Malhotra will stay on the job. Malhotra, 70, is a popular figure within the system formerly known as MnSCU. A former economics professor and college dean, he came to St. Cloud State University as vice president and provost in 2009 and did a two-year stint as interim president of Metropolitan State University in St. Paul from 2014 to 2016. He has been interim chancellor of the system of two- and four-year institutions for eight months.
Possessing a dignified, soft-spoken manner, Malhotra is credited with building positive relationships with the faculty groups that clashed with his predecessor, Steven Rosenstone, over a strategic planning process that they faulted as too centrally controlled. Malhotra’s appointment was praised in a joint statement Friday by the unions representing faculty, staff and a student organization.
Having extended a three-year contract to Malhotra, the Minnesota State board may be tempted to close the books on the two searches and focus on the future. It’s to board chair Michael Vekich’s credit that he is not ready to do that. Vekich is proposing a task force that he said “will take a deeper look at our system” in light of the questions the searches raise.
A number of those questions need answers. 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? Was the position’s salary an issue? Rosenstone was paid a base salary of $390,000 in his final year as chancellor; by comparison, University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler’s base pay is $625,250.
It does Malhotra no discredit for the board to explore those questions. He will take the permanent position with the credibility that comes from having twice been deemed preferable to scores of applicants and three carefully chosen finalists. As Vekich put it, “The value of the leader that we have in place has been confirmed.”
Malhotra deserves the governing board’s support and Minnesota’s best wishes. But Minnesotans deserve answers to the questions that the two chancellor searches leave in their wake.