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Minnesota State trustees to name chancellor Friday of 37-school system

Ricardo Azziz, Van Ton-Quinlivan and Neal Cohen (Courtesy photos)

ST. PAUL—Minnesota State trustees plan to appoint the higher education system's next chancellor Friday morning, March 2, after two days of public and private interviews.

The three finalists socialized with trustees Tuesday, then spent about an hour each on Wednesday publicly answering questions from students and staff at the St. Paul system office.

One year ago, the board was unsatisfied with the finalists from its first search and instead named Devinder Malhotra as interim successor to Steven Rosenstone, in charge of the system of seven universities and 30 two-year colleges. Malhotra is expected to leave his $350,000 post on Aug. 1.

"I think the search committee did a great job and brought three great candidates for us to look at," trustees chairman Michael Vekich said Wednesday.

The finalists are Ricardo Azziz, chief officer of academic health and hospital affairs for the State University of New York (SUNY) system; Van Ton-Quinlivan, executive vice chancellor of workforce and digital futures for the California Community Colleges; and Neal Cohen, who spent most of his career in finance for Northwest Airlines and four years as president and chief operating officer of the international for-profit higher education company Laureate Education.

Each candidate is, in his or her own way, an artist.

Azziz has been making visual art since the early 1970s, Ton-Quinlivan was a concert pianist, and a former airline colleague described Cohen to the Washington Post as a " cost-reduction artist."

RICARDO AZZIZ

Azziz, a 59-year-old Uruguay native and medical doctor and researcher, described himself as "a faculty first and an administrator second."

Starting in 2012, he was founding CEO of what is now Augusta University, a public research university and medical center in Georgia. He said he led the school through a major drop in state funding by forging partnerships with corporations, alumni and philanthropists.

As an institution facing financial hardship, he said, Minnesota State must decide who it wants to be.

"You cannot be everything to everyone," he said.

Championing diversity, Azziz said, has been a hallmark of his career. He's served as a mentor though the National Institutes of Health and on a UCLA diversity council and said he quickly established and empowered a chief diversity office at Augusta.

Azziz said he's preparing the next generation of Hispanic leaders for the SUNY system and that most of the members of his leadership team are women.

"I can't tell you how passionate about that I am," he said.

Azziz said he makes an effort to be nonpartisan and has been appointed by Democratic and Republican governors alike. He said he knows how to advocate for the education system.

"My job is to understand where you're coming from so I can best position my pitch," he said.

VAN TON-QUINLIVAN

Born in Vietnam to a neurosurgeon and a teacher, the 49-year-old Ton-Quinlivan fled with her parents to California in 1975.

She said her parents had to restart their careers and relied on social programs to get by.

With master's degrees from Stanford University in education policy and business administration, she was director of workforce and economic development for a San Francisco utility company before joining the nation's largest system of community colleges.

Ton-Quinlivan said that during the Great Recession, her schools collaborated with industry to ensure students would graduate with marketable skills.

Asked about supporting students of color, she said colleges must engender a "sense of belonging" in all students.

She gave examples of using technology to improve the experience for students and staff. The California colleges now have an accountability tool for tracking a variety of student success measures, sortable by student demographic groups.

The system also launched a mobile app that lets students explore their two- and four-year options by location, interests and earning power.

"This is one of those ways we're trying to reach students where they are," she said.

Ton-Quinlivan called herself a bridge builder, facilitator of conversation and advocate for students.

"I'm very much a believer in students realizing their potential," she said.

NEAL COHEN

As the most unconventional of the three finalists, the 57-year-old Cohen said Wednesday that his experiences with the financially struggling airline industry and in for-profit higher education will translate well to a public higher education under serious financial stress amid declining enrollment.

He said Minnesota State must focus on its value proposition as a low-cost provider of a great education and sell that to students, employees, business partners and lawmakers.

"That will naturally attract the resources from our students, from the state and from third parties," he said.

Financial sustainability, Cohen said, comes not from cutting costs or growing revenue but proving the system's value.

Still, he said Minnesota State must change along with the rest of higher education, including by ending programs that don't help students succeed.

"We will not be offering programs just because we offered them last year," he said.

"Education is going through a transformation. The worst thing that can happen is not doing anything."

Cohen last worked as executive vice president and chief financial officer of the aerospace and defense firm Orbital ATK, in 2015. He was the top choice that year to lead the Washington, D.C., transit system but never agreed on a contract.

Born in Philadelphia, he lived for two decades in Minnesota and still owns a Lake Minnetonka beach house as well as a residential property in Palm Beach County, Fla., public records show.

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