New higher ed leaders pledge cooperation

The politics of money makes surprising bedfellows in Minnesota’s higher education community.

Minnesotans often see the two state-run college and university systems as competitors, but in a time of dwindling state aid and a tough economy, new leaders of the organizations pledge to work together.

“There are two new guys in town here who are prepared to think in new ways, ask new questions that haven’t been asked, take a fresh look at things,” said Steven Rosenstone, newly minted chancellor of the St. Paul-based Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

Across the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, President Eric Kaler of the University of Minnesota, on the job two months, sounds much the same: “If there ever was a time for waste and duplication, that is not now.”

The two new leaders promise to work together to seek more state money, a source of income that has fallen over the years but never as much as in the cuts this year’s Legislature made. They also promise to work together on programs, both to save money and to help Minnesotans navigate between the two systems.

Not only are two fresh faces running the state’s colleges and universities, they are linked as never before.

MnSCU recruited Rosenstone, who was University of Minnesota scholarly cultural affairs vice president and who had applied for the job Kaler eventually landed.

Kaler, meanwhile, comes from a New York higher education system that was an umbrella to schools ranging from two-year technical colleges to four-year universities, much like MnSCU.

Kaler begin his job on July 1, Rosenstone a month later. But the two begin talking before taking office, and plan to continue close contact.

“I am open to any and all conversations with MnSCU,” Kaler said.

The U president said that any major new cooperative efforts need to await some preliminary work.

“Part of the conversation is identifying the mission of the two institutions very crisply,” Kaler said. “We are a research university. … MnSCU’s primary mission is to develop the workforce for the future. So those are different missions. They intersect, obviously.”

The leaders said an example of the intersection is nanotechnology, use of molecule-sized particles in manufacturing. (Kaler said one nanotechnology use could be to change a material to make it waterproof, but make no other changes in its properties.)

This year’s Legislature approved a university nanotechnology research center. The U can do the basic research, then Rosenstone said, a MnSCU institution such as Dakota County Technical College could figure out how to use the discoveries in real life.

“If you can’t turn it into a manufacturing process that works,” he said, the research means little.

Working together helps everyone, he said. “That is not scary, that is just common sense.”

The systems have worked together before, Rosenstone added, but it was not “a full scale strategy.”

The chancellor said he would like two or three “big ideas” about how the systems could work together in coming months.

The leaders’ bosses want cooperation, too.

Already, MnSCU backs up computer data on the University of Minnesota campus, said Dan McElroy of Burnsville, a MnSCU trustee.

McElroy said that trustees liked Rosenstone’s university connection, and that is one reason they hired him.

University Regent Clyde Allen of Moorhead, one of Rosenstone’s job references, said Kaler and Rosenstone must work together to convince lawmakers their systems need more money.

“We also need to look at courses to see where we are redundant and don’t need to be,” Allen said.

Allen said cooperation and competition can exist side by side. “There is competition, but it is friendly competition and the competition is directed at … keeping us all on our toes.”

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