State of the University: Montana is on the rise, literally and physically

Along with a clear focus on student success and faculty engagement, the University of Montana is “on the rise” in many ways, Provost Jon Harbor assured the faculty, staff and students gathered for Friday’s State of the University address.

While highlighting the success of UM graduates including YouTube sensations Hank Green and Emily Graslie, Harbor said the school is literally on the rise – according to work by graduate student Ellen Knappe.

“GPS measurements show that the valley and surrounding peaks here are displaced up and down annually by about 8 mm in response to the loading and unloading of the Earth’s surface by the mountain snowpack,” Harbor said. “So today, we are literally and physically on the rise.”

While enrollment is down for fall semester, University of Montana President Seth Bodnar said the numbers are “better than we projected.”

He opened his first address with a few priorities for the 2018-19 academic year: first to improve student success, and second to engage faculty and students in innovative teaching, learning and research.

Connecting with the city of Missoula and sharing more of what students do at UM are other priorities, Bodnar said.

“In all of our decisions and actions we will put the success of our students first,” he said. “We will renew our intense focus on student retention, persistence and success through graduation and beyond.”

The administration has started the search for a new vice provost for student success who will partner academic aspects of the university with student affairs and learning and development outside the classroom.

“Most students spend about 15 percent of their time in the classroom. Eighty-five percent of their time is somewhere else,” Bodnar said at a press conference. “But a college experience is both in and out of the classroom and we want to make sure we’re looking at those experiences holistically.”

Harbor said student success isn’t just defined by academics, but by the entire college experience. Connecting students with alumni and implementing learning communities with faculty and staff outside of class are a few changes the administration hopes to implement.

“Taking courses and making academic progress is absolutely key, but that’s not the whole life of the student,” Harbor said at the news conference. “So having them have experiences in the residences that are maybe part of learning communities that bring together their living experience with their academic experience. Having them think more carefully and be encouraged to do internships and study abroads and working experiences that build soft skills in addition to the content they’re learning. So it is a difference from the normal academic conversation about student success.”

Providing incoming students with resources and trained academic advisers, expanding online opportunities for students, and pinpointing the class times and days of the week that provide better student access are all on the radar. This way, students will want to stay and fulfill their education at UM.

With all of this in mind, savings and restructuring are needed, Bodnar said.

Over the past few months, summer enrollment was up 17 percent over the last year, with 463 students completing their graduation requirements.

The recently launched Project Simplification will look at all operations to ensure efficiency. Recent sustainability measures have saved the school about $300,000 in annual utilities, and partnerships with local businesses have produced positive revenue for the university.

Changes to recruitment, hiring and traveling will result in more than $140,000 in savings a year.

“These are hours and dollars that we can dedicate to our core mission of teaching, research and student development,” Bodnar said.

Rebalancing resources to better meet the needs of students is also a possibility, he said.

“We’re going to be looking at our staffing levels in each of our departments, in each of our areas of the university to make sure that they align with the number of students that we have,” Bodnar said later. “In some areas, that will mean less faculty. In some cases, that could mean reductions in tenured faculty in specific areas. In other places, it means we’ll be adding faculty and we will be having faculty that are planning to retire [and] we’ll be launching new searches for more faculty to replace those.”

But Bodnar’s new guiding principle, “Mission First, People Always,” focuses on the human aspect of the university.

Ninety percent of the university’s budget is allocated to personnel; people are what make UM successful, he said.

Research has shown that other strategies for learning are more effective than current ones, Harbor said. Workshops and faculty training can help implement, for example, more active learning classrooms where students sit in groups instead of rows.

“It’s not telling people what to do, but giving them new experiences, new knowledge and allowing them to redesign how they work with their students,” Harbor said.

Mariah Welch, Associated Students of UM vice president, said the solution to the university’s recent struggles with enrollment is to make students the center of every process, and that includes ASUM.

“ASUM will continue to make the most disenfranchised student student engaged on our campus,” she said. “We will be reaching out to students across all areas to include them in search committees and Senate processes to create a stronger student voice.”

ASUM president Alex Butler said he wants to make himself along with Welch more known on campus so students can approach them on issues and ideas that can be taken to the administration.

They look forward to inviting students outside of ASUM to participate in search committees and holding workshops for students who want to lead clubs or activities.

“It’s not just my experience, it’s learning about what everybody else’s is so then I can be able to better inform the decisions that we make within ASUM,” Butler said.

While student and faculty success at the university is the top priority, Harbor and Bodnar agreed that they hope to do far more.

“UM is on the rise, and I’m convinced that as a community, we have the strength and quality to sustain that rise,” Harbor said. “This is critically important because at the University of Montana, we transform lives.”