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MnSCU Chancellor Rosenstone faces complex challenge of leading 31 colleges and universities

ST. PAUL -- It's a good thing Steven Rosenstone likes puzzles.

The 59-year-old Rosenstone faces a complex one: how 31 colleges and universities can provide excellent education in a time when state funding is falling and the economy is faltering.

"That is a tremendous puzzle and we are going to solve it," he said. "They are counting on me to help solve it."

Rosenstone replaced the retired John McCormick as Minnesota State Colleges and Universities chancellor on Aug. 1, following 15 years as a University of Minnesota administrator.

MnSCU is a varied system, with two-year technical colleges, two-year community colleges and four-year universities. Its 31 presidents govern 54 campuses scattered across the state. Rosenstone is their boss.

Besides traditional students, MnSCU serves those in many lines of work who need retraining or refresher classes.

"Nobody can be left behind," Rosenstone said, no region, no age, no industry sector, no income level.

How to do that is a tough puzzle, considering experts say that the workforce needs to go from today's 45 percent with post-high school education to 70 percent by 2018.

"I have to first come up with a scheme by which I am going to accomplish that," Rosenstone said.

With so many campuses, there always is worry about whether a local one could close.

Rosenstone said that some campuses, which he did not identify, are on the financial bubble, but he needs to see more information before knowing if any need to close, or if changes could preserve them.

The chancellor said he needs to know "how many programs and in what regions of the state do we need to serve the people of Minnesota?"

If a remote campus serves a relatively few local students, that campus still may need to remain as is, Rosenstone said, because the alternative could force students to drive hundreds of miles to another campus. That would not be acceptable, he added.

Consolidating MnSCU work has been on-going for a decade, with some non-classroom work already being handled jointly. For instance, MnSCU's home office farms out its payroll preparation to Minnesota State Community College.

The job market is changing, and MnSCU needs to look at where jobs will be needed years down the road.

"We have to skate to where the puck is going to be," said Rosenstone, who is paid a $360,000 base salary annually and could receive a $50,000 bonus.

Dan McElroy agreed with Rosenstone that this is a challenging time for higher education, and that it is more important than ever for Minnesotans to receive an education. McElroy, a MnSCU trustee and long-time state official, said studies show workers earn more money with a post-high school education.

The trustee said MnSCU must match courses to what is needed and to be innovative.

"We cannot do it like we have always done it without a very good reason," McElroy said. "If it isn't broken, it may very well be obsolete."

McElroy praised Rosenstone. Another trustee said that Rosenstone has "a great resume," but never has led a college.

"He doesn't have any experience in the area of technical colleges," added former state Rep. Phil Krinkie, and that is important to MnSCU.

Krinkie was the lone dissenting vote when trustees hired Rosenstone.

The chancellor faces plenty of problems.

For instance, with baby boomers retiring, "there is going to be a feeding frenzy going after talent" in Minnesota's colleges and universities, he said, from places like North Dakota with a better economy.

When the economy rebounds, industry also will look at people now in college and university jobs. "They can start cherry picking the most talented people we have."

For the chancellor, "the moment we are about to enter into is going to be the scariest moment for higher education in our lifetime."

That makes for a complex puzzle, and Rosenstone likes complex puzzles.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co., which owns Detroit Lakes Newspapers.