The new leader of Minnesota's complex system of public two-year colleges and four-year universities promises bold changes and tough calls.

Steven Rosenstone, chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, said Tuesday that he wants to improve the quality of education, keep tuition low, improve partnerships with business and graduate a greater share of the system's students. But much of his 45-minute speech to the system's governing board focused on redesign.

"The biggest risk is business as usual," he said during his first Board of Trustees meeting since his start Aug. 1. "We need to be willing ... to think a little differently about how we do most everything."

Rosenstone, who comes to MnSCU from the University of Minnesota, offered few details for now. He promised to consult faculty, campus presidents and students before proposing big changes. But a few of his examples would transform the student experience and could confront faculty contracts.

He suggested, for example, that the system's online courses are duplicative.

"The model of online is very different than the 19th-century model of every single course being created individually by a separate faculty member in a separate department in a separate college on a separate campus," he said. Why not have just one "absolutely spectacular" online course in a particular subject, offered to students at any of MnSCU's campuses?

A new structure needed

That would take a new structure, he acknowledged, but "let's make sure we have structure following our goals and aspirations."

"Imagine," he suggested later, "that we were to flip things around." Instead of students coming to school for the lecture and going home for the homework, what if students watched the lecture at home and came to campus for the homework, working through the details with faculty?

"That would be a fundamental change for the faculty," Rosenstone said. "We can't not have the first conversation because we're afraid to have the second one."

One faculty leader declined to comment on Rosenstone's plan, while another did not return a phone call Tuesday.

'A visionary'

Geoff Dittberner, president of the Minnesota State College Student Association, praised Rosenstone's concern about keeping a MnSCU education affordable. Tuition and fees at the system's two-year colleges are the third-highest in the nation, compared with like schools, he noted, citing an annual report by the Higher Education Coordinating Board in Washington, D.C.

"We're optimistic about the energy he's bringing to the office. He's certainly a visionary," Dittberner said. But, he added, "the devil is in the details of this plan."

MnSCU is the state's biggest higher education system, measured by students. Its seven state universities and 25 community and technical colleges educate 434,000 students in credit and noncredit courses.

The system was pieced together in the 1990s from three distinct ones. Following that difficult merger and a quick succession of short-term leaders, longtime Chancellor James McCormick brought stability over his decade in charge, leaders said.

Now that it's settled, the system is ready to take the next step, several trustees said Tuesday. The board praised Rosenstone's vision and gave it an informal approval.

"This is exactly what we need," trustee Brett Anderson said. "We have been pulled up by our bootstraps, and now we need to run."

A tough spot

Rosenstone is grappling with swelling enrollment and calls to educate a larger share of the workforce with falling state funding. MnSCU numbers show that state funding per student, adjusted for inflation, has shrunk by 48 percent since 2000. Meanwhile, tuition has risen.

"It's not that the cost of higher education in our system has gone up," Rosenstone said. "It's who's paying the cost that has changed."

He said that MnSCU's role in educating Minnesota's workforce "cannot diminish in the face of current financial challenges."

At Tuesday's meeting, he offered three strategies: "Ensure access to an extraordinary education for all Minnesotans.

"Be the partner of choice to meet Minnesota's workforce and community needs.

"Deliver to students, employers, communities and taxpayer the highest value, most affordable option."

Rosenstone predicted that he'd propose more specific changes at board meetings in October and November.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168