Q+A with President Arthur: New chancellor, cybersecurity, campus safety

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President Ginny Arthur at the Spring Faculty Conference in New Main Great Hall on February 17, 2018. Photo courtesy of Metropolitan State University

The Metropolitan met with President Ginny Arthur on March 16 for an hourlong conversation about the recent appointment of Chancellor Devinder Malhotra, legislative funding prospects (including a potential $10 million for a cybersecurity center at Metro State), and campus safety in the wake of the Parkland shooting. This is the fifth Q & A of the 2017-2018 school year.

On March 2, the Minnesota State Board of Trustees appointed Dr. Devinder Malhotra as Chancellor for a three-year term.  You worked closely with Dr. Malhotra when he was interim president here at Metro State. What’s your reaction to the board’s choice?

I’m delighted. I have appreciated working with him and I’ve really known him and worked with him my whole time in the system because when I was provost here, he was provost at St. Cloud State. At that time, the university provosts would get together once a month so I got to know Devinder through there. Of course I had two years of working very closely with him here when he was president.

I really appreciate that he’s a good listener. He gets all the facts—or as many of the facts as you can possibly get—before making a decision. You have a sense that if he asked you to tell him what you think, that he really wants to hear it.

And I think that we’ve noticed in the system a real change in terms of everybody engaging more openly in conversation, which is obviously much more productive for real decision making.

I am the university president representative who meets with Students United on a monthly basis when they meet with the chancellor. Just yesterday the students were saying to me that it’s so different. They feel like they’re listened to. They’re taken seriously. What they have to say is considered. Even if things don’t exactly work out the way we hope, we know we have been heard.

I think it became clear during the selection process that—because outside candidates come in and give you their observations—we do need to have some conversations about this system and how do we make it work better and more efficiently. Some of those won’t be easy conversations. But I think because of his manner of facilitating conversation and making sure people are heard that it will go as well as it can.

OCCUPATION: Chancellor of Minnesota State Colleges & Universities
RECENT WORK HISTORY: Interim Chancellor, 2017-2018; Interim President, Metropolitan State University, 2014-2016; Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, St. Cloud State University, 2009-2014
EDUCATION: Ph.D, economics, Kansas State University; M.A. and B.A., economics, University of Delhi
SPEAKING OF HIS EXPERIENCE AT METRO STATE: “I saw firsthand the strength of an institution that is part of a system. I saw how an institution can be transformative and a catalyst to its students.” [During his visit to campus in July 2017]

Was there work Dr. Malhotra did when he was here at Metro State that you’d like to see him replicate at the system level?

I think what is important is that he understands Metro State and that it is different from the other six universities which are more traditional, residential models serving 18- to 24-year-olds.

Sometimes one of the impacts of a system is to try to make everyone be as much like each other as possible because that’ll make it easier to manage such a big enterprise.  I think he’s much more willing to say that [Metro State has] some real advantages in the way we do things and we should definitely be allowed to do what we think is best and not be forced into another mold.

He understands the Metro State point of view—how important collaboration and partnership is for us across the system. He will be a good facilitator of that.

Governor Dayton delivered his final State of the State address on March 14 and spoke in support of the Minnesota State funding requests. The Legislature has been in session for over a month now. What progress do you see on funding for Minnesota State?

That was a good first step, because if the governor didn’t include it in his budget request, then it’s a much harder road with the Legislature.

On Fridays we have a legislative update call from the [Minnesota State] government relations staff. I have a feeling [this Friday’s call] will be urging us to reach out to our local legislators and talking to them about the benefits of funding both the bigger bonding request, keeping it at the governor’s level and letting people know the impacts of the supplemental $10 million.  

That $10 million would be distributed among the colleges and university using the regular allocation formula. So it would bring about another $459,000 to Metro State. That could fill a few holes! Then that becomes the base budget funding. So it carries forward. It’s not one-time—that’s also really positive.

In terms of the HEAPR [Higher Education Asset Preservation and Replacement] money, we don’t have a bonding provision at Metro State. But the Management Education Center over at MCTC? It’s really important to us that that gets taken care of.

The building is uninhabitable in some parts now because the heating and cooling system isn’t working. So it’s run-down facility. Like the governor said, it’s hard to have a world-class education when you’re in really dilapidated old facilities. We don’t need a new building, but if we could make that one a little more attractive inside, I think that that is really important for students.

In Governor Dayton’s speech he said that he thinks the U of M and Minnesota State have been asking for less than they actually need because they don’t think the Legislature will be fully supportive of them. If you thought you would have support from the Legislature, what else would you ask for?  

I would say that the campuses put forward their actual needs all the time. But the system does aggregate all of that and they make a decision by weighing out how much we think we can get from the Legislature.

Psychologically, it’s all a little bit of a game there. If you ask for a huge amount, will they just say it’s ridiculous and dismiss the whole thing? So I think they do always pare the request back.

I’ll say for Metro State, we have a very new physical plant. So our HEAPR request is a big one, but it really isn’t ours because the MEC building is owned by MCTC. But it has a huge impact on us.

Otherwise our requests have been fairly minor, like upgrading lighting on campus. It’s just that our buildings are so much newer. Even this building [New Main] is only a little less than 20 years old. So there’s not much that goes wrong with it.

Are there other prospects for legislative funding?

I don’t know how much you’ve heard about the work we’re doing around building a cybersecurity program. We have entered into a partnership with a company that provides cyber ranges which are emulators for people to get trained on cyber defense.  

A legislator named Rep. Tony Albright [R-Prior Lake] became very interested in this. One thing he’s concerned about for the state is IT security and whether or not we’re modern and up-to-date. So he has introduced two bills. One is a $5 million capital project on our campus.

We would take the former Educated Palate space [on lower level of New Main] and update it as a fully functioning, secure operations center.It would have a network that’s isolated so there will be no exposure for the university’s systems. If businesses think their sites are under cyberattack, they could route their traffic to our cybersecurity center.

This would be a great opportunity for graduate students and people working there to observe those issues and figure out how to solve them. It would provide a real world laboratory in cybersecurity for us. It would be great for business in the area because there isn’t really any place in the state of Minnesota that does that right now.

So Rep. Albright thought it was a great plan and he wants to give us $5 million to do it. This is a little tricky because our [Minnesota State Colleges & Universities] system has an excellent process where campuses submit projects. Every two years they put together teams from people from across the system to review and score the projects and then they do rankings. They may take the top 10 or 15 projects and package them together for a bonding request. It’s a lengthy process and now this is kind of going around that.

Now, we didn’t ask for it. The legislator said this is a tremendous opportunity and it will be really useful for the business community in the state.

How did Rep. Albright hear of Metro State’s cybersecurity program?

He is affiliated with the American-Israel Chamber of Commerce. The company that we worked with to get the cyber range is the American subsidiary of a parent company in Israel. The CEO was here [at Metro State] to talk about the cyber range. He connected to the chamber and invited Rep. Albright to come over and see what we were doing.

In last year’s legislative session, Metro State was successful in getting the GROW-IT Center funded separately from the main Minnesota State request. Does that give you greater hope for the cybersecurity center project this year?

Well, we’ll know where we’re standing in just about two months. What gives me hope about the project is Rep. Albright. I’m very impressed with his legislative savvy.  I think he knows how to line things up at the Legislature, so he’s going to build a lot of support there.

I’m cautiously optimistic [about the bills]. I’m just worried if it does cut anything for the system—that would be an issue. A lot of people would be upset with us.

And he has introduced a second bill as well?

The second is a companion bill for $5 million in operating costs to get it going. The capital will cover equipping the center and the structural work to make it as secure as it needs to be.

We would have to do startup hiring, recruit graduate students, maybe give them some scholarship money. We might need another faculty member in the area.

Again, when you think that the whole supplemental request for the [Minnesota State] system is $10 million, I understand their concern that here’s $5 million coming along for Metro State.

So it’s a tricky proposition. As soon as I knew that the bills were going to be proposed, I contacted the system office and explained it to them. There was a hearing on Tuesday [March 13] on the two bills and our dean of the College of Sciences and our faculty member testified and told the committee about our program.  The vice chancellor, because we’d given her a heads up, was also there. The legislators asked her how this fit with the Minnesota State request. She said this is totally independent.

Now they have to find someone to carry the bill in the Senate. And I know that Rep. Albright is certainly working on that.

This [cybersecurity] is an emerging area and it needs investment.But I have to manage it carefully because my colleagues will potentially be unhappy if this somehow interferes with the system getting the money. So the best outcome would be everybody gets what they ask for.

Since the shooting in Parkland, Florida in February, school safety and gun violence has been on everyone’s mind. Is Metro State considering any new campus safety measures?

We’ve been thinking about this for a while and trying to figure out  the best approaches to preparing ourselves. All of the data on potential disasters that can occur on a college campus— tornadoes, big storms, floods—are much more likely to happen than any sort of gun incident. It’s a small possibility, but the consequences are huge.

We’ve been thinking and taking incremental action to continue to improve our safety. One thing that faculty and students pointed out to us last year was a concern about Midway’s basement classrooms. There is not good cell reception there. I think people feel that their first line of defense would be to call someone and let them know what was happening.

We’ve been in negotiations with our landlord. We finally think we have found a solution because the problem is generally the way you intensify the [cell] signal is carrier specific.

The solution is what they call a carrier-agnostic repeater. It should be close to being installed. We worked out a cost-sharing arrangement with the landlord.

We have to upgrade our phone systems this fall as they’re at the end of life. We will be installing phones in every classroom. This will be particularly important at Midway.

Our new student conduct officer [James Sachs] comes with a great deal of experience. We’ve had what we call the Behavioral Intervention Team. That became a best practice after Virginia Tech [campus shooting in 2007]. But Jim came in with much better protocols. So we’ve ramped that up.

There’s a new 24-hour hotline [651-793-1568] staffed by licensed counselors. We printed 10,000 cards [about the Metropolitan State CARES support line] and we’re getting them distributed. Every faculty member and every staff member should have one. If you have a concern, call any time, day or night, and get guidance about what to do.

The other things we have started to do are “tabletops,” and I want us to do them more frequently. You give staff an emergency scenario and have them work on it. After we’ve done tabletops on storm disasters, pandemic flu, a violent incident on campus, then we’re ready to do more of a simulated training. Or an active shooter training. Facilities and safety and security staff are working towards that.

An organization called Protect Minnesota will hold its conference on our campus in September. It’s attended by lots of safety and security experts. That might be a good time for us to try to do an active shooter drill.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.