by CHRIS ROGERS
When state leaders encouraged Larry Lundblad to come out of retirement and take a job as interim college president in 2018, it was intended to be a one-year gig. After all, it was a four-hour drive from the new job at Winona’s Minnesota State College (MSC Southeast) to his wife and their home in Brainerd, Minn. Three and a half years later, Lundblad is passing the baton after helping MSC Southeast rise to meet the needs of students and businesses and a growing demand for technical education.
After his initial one-year stint, Lundblad said yes to multiple contract extensions — before knowing exactly what 2020 would hold. “Of course, then we had the pandemic, and I didn’t read the fine print when the chancellor gave me the contract,” Lundblad joked at a retirement celebration last week, as he praised the school’s staff for their work to keep educating students safely during one of the most tumultuous periods in recent history.
There were other challenges when Lundblad first arrived. “To fully appreciate what Larry has accomplished, you have to acknowledge that when Larry took over in January of 2018, our college needed help,” Winona philanthropist Jerry Papenfuss said at last week’s event.
The former president of Central Lakes College in Brainerd, Lundblad was appointed to MSC Southeast shortly after the school was forced to close its registered nursing program after failing to meet standards and after the previous president abruptly resigned.
“The loss of the RN program was significant to the college and the communities, Red Wing and Winona both,” Lundblad acknowledged, adding that falling enrollment posed financial challenges for the college at the time, too.
There was some unglamorous business to attend to early in Lundblad’s tenure, including making staffing changes to help MSC Southeast stay within its means. However, as faculty and staff wished him well last week, the emotion was palpable.
“During committee meetings Larry not only listened to us, but heard our concerns,” Accounting Instructor Jill Halverson said, speaking on behalf of faculty. “Dr. Lundblad was an interim president,” Halverson told the crowd, removing her glasses as if to emphasize her next point. “But he was our president.”
MSC Southeast serves students from all walks of life, from teenagers still in high school to working adults looking to switch careers, and industry veterans aiming to keep their skills up to date. It provides career pathways in some of the fields most desperately in need of workers, from manufacturing to transportation and health care. Fulfilling such a critical role in the regional economy requires having good relationships with all kinds of people and institutions.
“I think Larry really went out of his way to make sure our college was part of the communities that it served, and I think you saw evidence of that last week, that community leaders came out,” MSC Southeast Vice President for Academics Chad Dull said in an interview. “And for someone who was theoretically commuting from Brainerd, he was out at chamber events, community events, and checking in on students at Kwik Trip.”
He may have benefitted from a growing appreciation of technical education in the country as a whole, but Lundblad helped Winona recognize the value of the college and its importance to the economy, Papenfuss said. “I just don’t think the community was anywhere near as aware of the technical college as it was four years ago when he started,” Papenfuss stated.
“You’ve got to reach out and connect with business partners and secondary [education] partners,” Lundblad said. “You’ve got to get to know people and find out about their needs and then you can try to solve those together.”
“Historically, he came in at a time when MSC Southeast was struggling and there were a lot of question marks,” Winona Area Chamber of Commerce President Christie Ransom said of Lundblad. “He had the foresight to connect with the people who could help him be better as a leader. He worked hard. He was very thoughtful, and he listened.”
Lundblad modestly described his role as interim president as just getting the college ready for the next leader. “He did much more than that,” Dull said. “There’s a version of an interim president where you say, ‘Ok, I’ll keep the train on the track and then I’ll go home,’ and that was never Larry. He was always pushing us to be better.”
In the last four years, MSC Southeast brought back a mechatronics program to meet the needs of local employers, won a major National Science Foundation grant to create an advanced manufacturing education hub, and recently announced a partnership where construction students will help build Habitat for Humanity homes. In a reversal, MSC Southeast recently won accreditation and approval from the Minnesota Board of Nursing, and the college will launch a new registered nursing pathway this fall, accepting its first RN-program students since 2017.
“Obviously, the successes aren’t mine,” Lundblad said. “They belong to the staff and faculty and everyone who works here.”
In particular, Ransom praised MSC Southeast for creating a dean of innovation. “That is so awesome, because just the word alone shows their whole goal into the future is to continue to innovate and be ready for whatever our businesses and the community they serve need.”
Being nimble and taking swift action isn’t always where government and academia excels, but Lundblad spurred the college to embrace change, Dull said. “You wouldn’t necessarily expect this from someone at the backend of their career, but Larry taught me that we need to act and act more quickly than higher education does a lot of the time. You figure out what the right thing to do is, and you take action. He challenged me a bit in that and made me a better leader.”
Lundblad briefly choked up as he thanked staff last week. “There’s just a lot of good people here,” he told the Post. However, for Southeast, “The best is yet to come,” he said, nodding to the incoming president, Dr. Marsha Danielson, whose tenure will begin in July. “It’s a big learning curve anytime you come into a new organization, but she’s already got a head start,” he said. “She’s the kind of person who’s really very thorough and very balanced, so she’ll do a great job. And she’s bringing a lot of experience from South Central [College].”
As for himself, Lundblad said he’s got some reconnecting to do in his hometown of Brainerd and repairs around the house. When the global pandemic subsides, he and his wife look forward to traveling. While his next chapter will probably be a true retirement from work, Lundblad — a man who always wants something to do — added, “If an opportunity comes along, I’ll take a look at it.”