UM, Missoula City Council pledge to work more closely together on new strategies

City Council members Michelle Cares and Heidi West, left, sit with Scott Whittenburg, vice president for research and creative scholarship at the University of Montana, during a joint meeting on Wednesday. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Saying the University of Montana and the city of Missoula must serve as each others ambassador, officials from both institutions gathered Wednesday and signed a verbal pledge to work more closely together.

From shared promotion to student retention and an emerging plan to create an innovation corridor across the city, the session brought new ideas to the table and a firm commitment from both parties to follow through in their shared quest for results.

“We have the opportunity and the obligation as leaders of this community and this university to work to make both as vibrant and flourishing as possible,” said UM President Seth Bodnar. “When I think about the strengths of our university, it’s not just about our sciences, our arts or professional schools, it’s also the strength of being located here in Missoula.”

Over lunch with members of the City Council and Missoula County commissioners, Bodnar and members of his cabinet touched on the university’s efforts to improve its recruiting efforts and retain those students who are already enrolled.

The school, which celebrates its 125th birthday this year, is also working to rebrand itself within the changing world of higher education. Bodner expressed confidence that UM has the core ingredients needed to overcome what he described as a number of well-known challenges.

“When I think of that core UM education, it’s the exact right combination for what a student needs to compete today,” he said. “I think we have a little bit of work to do to crystallize that message and articulate it. But the good news is, we’re positioned very well.”

Those challenges include enrollment and budgeting, though Bodnar sees progress on both fronts. Enrollment ticked up in the fall semester and plans are now underway to reconstitute a planning committee to bring a number of school strategies to fruition.

“We’re not starting from scratch, but it’s time now to bring those bodies together into a clear, strategic plan of action,” Bodnar said. “We’ve laid out a five-year plan to shape how we’re driving higher revenue as well, not just through recruitment, but through much-enhanced retention efforts. The easiest students to recruit are the ones already at your university.”

Members of the City Council, led by Ward 3 council member Gwen Jones, have vowed to help the university with its recruitment and retention efforts.

Jones gleaned several ideas during a recent trip with her son to the University of Iowa. There, she said, the school gave prospective students black and gold lanyards emblazoned with the Hawkeyes’ logo. When shown to businesses in downtown Iowa City, the student receives a 10-percent discount on all purchases.

It is, Jones said, just one example of what other communities are doing to help their university succeed in the competitive world of recruiting and keeping students.

“An idea stolen is just as good as one created,” she said. “They have a great downtown next to their liberal arts school, just like we do here. At restaurants in the downtown area in Iowa City, you can put money into an account and the kid has an app and they can go in and buy food. We should be looking at these things.”

Jones said she meets this week with UM officials and the Missoula Downtown Association to discuss building a similar program in Missoula, which already has widespread support from local businesses.

Bodnar also liked the idea.

“It makes such a difference having the whole town be ambassadors for this university and vice a versa,” he said. “It’s something I’d love to go deeper into.”

Bodner said the school has also launched a statewide blitz to activate alumni and encourage them to reach out to students in selling UM as a choice for college. Several members of the City Council are UM alumni.

The success of the city and UM are linked together, they agreed – a fact than necessitates a collaborate approach to success.

“We stand at the ready to help this university and this community go as each other goes,” said Ward 1 council member Bryan von Lossberg. “We’re ready to pick up the oar and start rowing.”