The Minnesota State system of colleges and universities is brainstorming ideas for spurring innovation — again.

This academic year, the system kicked off a $300,000 initiative called "Reimagining Minnesota State," bringing in movers-and-shakers from outside higher education to guide the project and national experts to lend insights.

For some on campus, the effort triggered unsettling flashbacks to former Chancellor Steven Rosenstone's "Charting the Future" bid to overhaul the system — a bid that sputtered amid acrimony with faculty unions and criticism of a $2 million contract with consulting giant Mc­Kinsey & Co. Some professors already have questioned what they see as the latest effort's murky objectives and an advisory group heavy on corporate and philanthropy leaders whose meetings are closed to the public.

But system officials say Minnesota State, faced with declining enrollment and looming state labor shortages, badly needs fresh ideas — from wherever it can get them. They say faculty, students and others on the system's 37 campuses will play a key part in vetting and rolling out any recommendations.

"We'll jointly come to a shared understanding of what steps need to be taken to secure our future," said system Chancellor Devinder Malhotra.

Minnesota State's 30 community colleges and seven universities serve more than 366,000 students, making it the country's fourth-largest public higher education system.

'Everything is on the table'"

Launched in 2012, Rosenstone's "Charting the Future" charged groups of faculty, students and administrators with crafting plans to boost innovation and collaboration among campuses, from joint purchasing to growing their online offerings to exploring ways to grant students credit for hands-on experience.

But amid a relationship strained by contentious contract negotiations, faculty unions pounced on news that the system had quietly hired McKinsey to manage the process, criticizing a lack of transparency. Then-Gov. Mark Dayton cited the standoff over that initiative when he briefly threatened to withhold any new funding from the system in 2015.

For the unions and the system's student associations, "Charting the Future" was a bust, fizzling out without making any change. But Malhotra, who stepped in as interim chancellor after Rosenstone left in 2017, says the initiative was "very, very successful in articulating what needed to be done." It spawned some changes, mostly still works in progress: an effort to beef up academic advising and a program that offers training to match employer needs.

In any case, Malhotra says, this latest initiative is different. Led by the board of trustees, it is much more focused on innovation as the system braces for looming challenges such as shrinking high school graduating classes and more traditionally underrepresented students with higher needs. Board Chairman Michael Vekich, a business advisory company CEO, says anything will be considered, even unpopular moves such as consolidating campuses.

"We're talking about a full cultural shift within our system," Vekich said. "Everything is on the table."

The initiative's advisory board will distill insights from five campus forums with national experts and will craft recommendations.

Last summer, the system signed a $163,000 contract with Washington, D.C.-based AGB Consulting to help plan and run the initiative, from lining up guest speakers to drafting next steps based on "takeaways" from the forums. The initiative's budget also includes dollars to free up Lisa Foss, a vice president at St. Cloud State University, to coordinate the project and expenses to fly in speakers.

At a recent St. Cloud State forum on the evolving role of technology, John O'Brien, a former Minnesota State vice chancellor now heading the nonprofit Educause, spoke of digital course materials, dashboards that help faculty track student progress and "chatbots" that alert students about overdue assignments. An official at Morgan State University, a historically black college in Maryland, spoke of using such tools to boost graduation rates.

Process, ideas questioned

Professors acknowledge that amid budget deficits and enrollment dips, Minnesota State needs to take a hard look at how it does business. Faculty unions see Malhotra as an ally who has healed system divisions, and his endorsement of the project carries weight.

Still, faculty leaders were rankled that they found out about the initiative only after the advisory board had already met twice at the Minneapolis Club. They point out that Malhotra is the only board member with experience working in higher education, and they question how productive the board's discussions can be without campus voices.

Faculty say they were alarmed by some ideas Vekich and forum presenters have held up, perhaps most notably the example of Southern New Hampshire University, once a struggling private school that has become a national online learning powerhouse. Faculty balk at its standardized classes delivered by adjunct instructors and short courses covering skills an employer might need, arguing that the model is a poor fit for the system's growing number of underserved students. McKinsey, the "Charting the Future" consultant, has touted that model.

"This is just a different way of packaging the same effort," said Matthew Filner, a Metropolitan State University professor. "It's an effort to make higher education accessible to corporations that want to make a profit off of it."

Some leaders such as Brent Jeffers, head of the university faculty union, say that though the latest consultant tab is a small fraction of what Mc­Kinsey charged, such expenses are questionable in lean times. His union kicked off a parallel process for soliciting innovation ideas from its members.

"Up to this point, this 'Re­imagining' process has only invited us as audience members," said Matt Williams, vice president of the college faculty union. "We hope at some point our perspective and voices will be fully embraced."

Frankie Becerra, a Century College student who heads the statewide student association LeadMN, said "Charting the Future" produced ideas students backed, such as stepping up efforts to make transferring between system schools easier. But Becerra says trustees lack the political will and unity to sign off on tough changes, pointing to two failed national searches for chancellor before trustees appointed Malhotra.

"Students are tired of waiting," said Becerra. "We're starving for change now."

A string of higher education systems has undertaken major reform initiatives, says George Mehaffy of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, of which Minnesota State is a member. Minnesota's effort stands out for its sweep and involvement of "a broad swath of citizenry" beyond campus, who can push for follow-through, he said.

"In this pivotal age, having this broad focus and range of voices is really important," he said.

David Mortenson, chairman of Minneapolis-based Mortenson Construction, said he joined the advisory board because of the key role institutions such as the system play in keeping the state's competitive edge. Mortenson also chairs the Itasca Project, an influential business coalition that has been hosted by McKinsey and has taken on issues from health care to higher education. He dismissed the idea that "Reimagining" is primarily about serving corporate America: "Our conversations have all started with the student, not with the employer."

Malhotra said it's wise to hear from other sectors that have been buffeted by sweeping change. But, he said, "that doesn't mean that whatever we learn we'll blindly apply to Minnesota State and to higher education."

Mila Koumpilova • 612-673-4781