Portera completed grade school in West Point and earned his bachelor's and master's degrees at Mississippi State University in Starkville. He went on to complete a doctorate at the University of Alabama and has worked throughout his career in college administration and industrial development. He was a vice president and vice-chancellor at the University of Alabama, leaving in 1996 to found Malcolm Portera Associates, a business development and strategic planning firm.
Portera served president of Mississippi State University from 1999 to 2001. He began his term of service as chancellor for the UA System on January 1, 2002, succeeding Thomas Meredith. He spent part of his first year as interim president of UAB until hiring Carol Garrison that summer. He also assumed the role of interim president of the University of Alabama in Huntsville in April 2011.
In January 2012 Portera announced his retirement, pending the hire of his replacement.
- Wolfson, Hannah (January 16, 2012) "University of Alabama System chancellor announces retirement." Birmingham News