In the midst of a global pandemic that spanned the spring and summer sessions, students at Minnesota State earned 26,000 degrees, certificates, and diplomas, and perhaps most importantly, 5,500 of those awards were in the nursing and health professions -- 350 from Minnesota State College Southeast. The Red Wing and Winona campuses produced students in practical nursing, medical laboratory technician, radiography tech, medical support careers, massage therapy, biomedical equipment technology, and certified nursing assistant.

“These students are critical in meeting Minnesota’s health care workforce needs,” said Devinder Malhotra, chancellor of Minnesota State, a system of seven universities and 30 colleges on 54 campuses in 47 communities.

Malhotra is proud of those graduating students, as he should be, but he is also proud of how the entire Minnesota State system has faced the challenges of COVID-19 and maintained a safe environment for students, staff, and faculty.

“Our colleges and universities have made significant investments in mitigating the spread of COVID-19,” Malhotra said during a conference call with the Republican Eagle Editorial Board. “We implemented class size limits, social distancing, and enhanced sanitation protocols as recommended by the Minnesota Department of Health and the CDC. We required face coverings for everyone.”

Minnesota State also placed many classes online, although for some of the technical colleges such as Minnesota State College Southeast in Red Wing, that is difficult because of the hands-on nature of many of the classes.

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Malhotra and the entire Minnesota State system should be commended for their efforts. With 163,000 students enrolled on their campuses, they encountered only a few cases of coronavirus, dealt with them quickly, and suffered no major outbreaks.

“Our college and university leadership and our faculty and staff have been very successful in completing the fall semester and helping students progress toward their educational goals,” Malhotra said.

Economic concerns

He also noted that the pandemic is not over and that, in addition to the problems of the virus, there are also economic problems that must be overcome.

“We are mindful of the wider role our colleges and universities will play. As the state moves toward economic recovery, we want to be part of that solution,” Malhotra said. “The businesses need talent and a strong workforce to continue sustained economic growth.”

Malhotra is clear that the economics of the pandemic are not fair. Minnesota State has 80,000 students from low-income families, as well as 63,000 students of color.

“These students are economically vulnerable,” he said. “They have taken the brunt of the damage, and they are dropping out in larger numbers as their ability to pursue their education is severely impaired because of falling incomes and unemployment.”

To face these problems, Malhotra will be asking the state Legislature, for the 2022-2023 fiscal year, to provide an additional $120 million dollars to Minnesota State. With expenses up because of increased sanitation and health protocols, and revenue down because of declining enrollments at most campuses -- fortunately not at MSC Southeast -- the system needs help to keep it functioning properly.

Malhotra said $75 million of that amount would be to help the colleges and universities achieve economic stability. The other $45 million would support equity and affordability. He wants to use $23 million of that amount for a scholarship fund aimed at economically vulnerable students. The other $22 million is needed to help students meet basic needs.

“As a result of the pandemic, there is a tremendous spike in food insecurity, housing insecurity, mental health needs, child care needs by our students,” Malhotra said.

President search

For the past three years, Minnesota State College Southeast has been under the direction of an interim president, Larry Lundblad. Malhotra wants to find a permanent person for that job. He recently created a search committee and hired a search consultant.

“They are building a strong and diverse applicant pool,” Malhotra said. “They will work through the search process and identify three or four finalists. We will seek feedback from our internal and external stakeholders, and then I intend to make a recommendation to the board sometime in March or April. I know there is a lot of interest in strengthening the Red Wing campus and growing it, and that’s what we will be focused on, just as President Lundblad has done over the last three years.”

Whoever that individual is, he or she will have a strong base upon which to build.