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Chancellor praises southwest institutions as anchors to region

Photo by Jenny Kirk SMSU President Connie Gores, right, coordinates the agenda with Minnesota State Interim Chancellor Devinder Malhotra and Board of Trustee chair Michael Vekich on Tuesday morning.

MARSHALL — Interim Chancellor Devinder Malhotra and the Minnesota State Board of Trustees were on the campus of Southwest Minnesota State University on Tuesday and Wednesday, taking part in various committee meetings and conducting business at a full board meeting — the first time ever that the Board of Trustees has done that in a non-metro location.

“All regions of the state are important to us and that is reflected by the Board’s choice to have one of their monthly meetings here in this region,” Malhotra said.

SMSU President Connie Gores was among those to welcome Malhotra, board chair Michael Vekich and vice chair Dawn Erdland, along with the other 13 Board of Trustee members, to the Marshall campus.

“We’re very pleased that they’re visiting the campus and pleased that they choose Marshall and Southwest Minnesota State as the first location other than the Twin Cities to have their meeting,” Gores said. “We’re pleased because it demonstrates the importance of SMSU to this region and the importance of SMSU to the entire system. We’re also pleased because they get a chance to see everything that Marshall has to offer and be part of our wonderful community.”

Malhotra praised southwest Minnesota, saying that the region was vigorous in more ways than one.

“It has a large agricultural base, but it also has a substantial amount of ag processing industry and also agriculture-related industries, but more importantly, manufacturing,” he said. In some ways, our two institutions in southwest Minnesota — Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall and Minnesota West (Community and Technical) College with its five campuses — are the anchor institutions to provide this region with the vibrancy, the talent and the sustenance its economy needs as well as be the social, cultural and intellectual capital this region needs.”

SMSU, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, is the youngest of seven universities that, along with 30 colleges, make up the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

“It’s a big, complex system and we are spread all across the state,” Malhotra said. “We enroll over 250,000 students and touch another 120,000 student through our continuing education, customized training, our certification and other non-credit activities.”

Since being named interim chancellor in February, Malhotra has visited all 37 institutions. He said he was struck by their transformative power.

“The transformative power of our institutions is just amazing,” Malhotra said. “I’m humbled by the stories I’ve heard from our students about the challenges they face and how they overcome those challenges — how they persevere and get to the finish line and make not only a better life for themselves and their families — but also that they are critical in creating and sustaining vibrancy and the economic and social well-being of the communities in which they will live and work.”

While at SMSU, Malhotra took time to highlight other positive attributes of the state’s higher education systems in addition to reflecting on the challenges facing those institutions.

“Our main function is to provide an extraordinary education at the most affordable tuition rates to all Minnesotans,” Malhotra said. “We are a very diverse system, with over 64,000 students of color or from native communities, over 70,000 from low-income families and approximately 50,000 who are first-generation college entrants. So as you see from our student body itself, our colleges and universities are places of hope and opportunity.

“They’re also the catalysts for upward economic and social mobility and it’s our obligation to protect and enhance the American dream.”

Malhotra said steady disinvestment in public higher education over the last couple of decades has been one of the challenges facing Minnesota State institutions.

Existing facility repair and maintenance is an area that has suffered. In response, Minnesota State is asking for $130 million this year in Higher Education Asset Preservation and Replacement (HEAPR) funds.

“To just give you a sense, this year we are asking for $130 million in HEAPR funds, but we’re asking only around $94 million for new projects — that is the priority we placed on these funds,” Malhotra said.

“What has happened, as our financial challenges mounted — as the resources available to use dwindled — there was some deferred maintenance. Currently, we face a 10-year backlog of about $2 billion.”

As he walked around SMSU, Malhotra said he recognized the need for those funds to “maintain these excellent facilities.” Malhotra added that it was a similar story across all 37 institutions.

“We are hopeful that we will get our requested funds so that we can make a dent in getting our facilities up to speed, to support the educational experience our students deserve, and up to speed so that these are conducive to student success embodiments for both our staff and our students.”

This year marks the first time that Minnesota State’s HEAPR request was greater than the new project request. And while the full $130 million will put a dent in the backlog of maintenance, it is nowhere near the total funding needed to get all of the facilities up to par.

“It will not get us out of the woods, but it will put us on the right track in dealing with our repair and maintenance,” Malhotra said.

“Because these are great assets located on 54 campuses in 47 communities — the buildings and facilities which house our colleges and universities — we need to make sure, on behalf of all the citizens of Minnesota, that these assets are well-maintained and are able to become, truly, the gateway for hope and opportunity for all Minnesotans.”

Communications director Jim Tate said that SMSU has been approved for a $1.9 million project.

“Our buildings are interconnected by links, and those links are the original links,” Tate said. “During the wintertime, weather has deteriorated them. So that’s the one project that was approved for $1.9 million.”

Malhotra said the HEAPR funds — part of capital bonding projects — would come at a little bit of a cost.

“Essentially, the state will issue some general obligation bonds, so in a sense, we would borrow funds and then they are paid over a longer period of time,” he said.

“In the meanwhile, our institutions are responsible for some of the debt servicing. But we think that the cost is worth what these funds can create in the kind of facilities which our student deserve for their educational experience.”

Challenges also exist in the form of increased tuition rates and student access to higher education opportunities.

“Currently, almost 60 percent of our total revenues come from student tuition and approximately 40 percent comes from the state government,” Malhotra said.

“It used to be just reverse. We used to get two-thirds of our revenue form the state and only a third was paid by the students. So in some ways, we have become increasingly privatized, so apart from the financial challenges themselves, there is inherently — since we want to enhance access, particularly to communities which traditionally have not had high participation rates in post-secondary education — a limit to which we can raise tuition.

“So overall, as we become increasingly dependent and privatized, the challenge is how do we preserve the publicness of a public institution?”

Despite being in the midst of massive change, Malhotra said Minnesota State is optimistically looking down the road through an collaborative effort it calls Charting the Future.

“That was the conceptualization of our strategic positioning and an overarching strategic vision,” he said. “It’s what needs to be done in our colleges and universities as they align themselves to the changing needs of the new learners, as they align themselves tot he changing needs of the workforce, as they align themselves to the changing needs of the demographics and as they align themselves to the new budget realities.”

Malhotra added that they are in the next phase.

“We have charted the future and now we are actually navigating the future,” Malhotra said. “We are in the execution phase. Our purpose is to make sure our graduates have the cultural competency to operate effectively in a multi-cultural, diverse society and multi-cultural workplace and that our graduates are ready also to participate effectively in today’s knowledge-based economy.”