Praising the campus community for navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, University of Montana President Seth Bodnar on Thursday said “creativity, cooperation and resiliency” will continue to lead the flagship institution through the challenges of a nation in throes of change.

While the state of the university address is typically delivered before several thousand campus employees, Thursday's address placed Bodnar alone in a renovated lecture hall where he highlighted the university's successes, its lingering challenges, and detailed its path toward renewal.

“This is a time of great unrest and difficulties for our county,” he said. “We're dealing with the challenges of a global pandemic, yes, but it's deeper than that.

“We've seen our various government structures stalled in perpetual gridlock. We've seen the erosion of civil discourse and respectful dialogue. We've seen economic growth that unfortunately has left many behind. We've seen laid bare the damaging impact of systemic racism in many of our institutions.”

But it's through those challenges that UM can lead the way, Bodnar said, defining the future as one of “hopeful renewal.” A quality and accessible education aren't only compatible, he added, they stand as the university's first responsibility.

“This is an institution that serves as a driver of economic development for our state, but also as an engine of social mobility,” he said. “This place matters, arguably more than it ever has.”

Over the past decade, the university has seen its enrollment dip, though Bodnar said efforts put in place three years ago are beginning to show results. The school saw an increase in freshman retention this past year, and the number of students who stayed enrolled across the academic year “was the best we've seen in a decade, and the second best in 20 years.”

Bodnar said student enrollment was also up during the summer semester for the third consecutive year. Enrollment this summer was 32% higher than in 2017. Interest from resident and non-resident students is climbing, he said.

“We've worked hard to effectively reach out to prospective students and to build a modern recruiting infrastructure,” he said. “We've seen progress with overall applications to UM up this year. I'm excited about the foundation we've built for the year ahead.”

UM set other lofty records this year, including $100 million in research. In 2018, Bodnar also challenged the university to boost its fundraising efforts from $320 million to $400 million.

While it was an “ambitious” goal, he said, the school has exceeded the challenge and did so ahead of schedule.

“This fundraising campaign is now officially not just the largest and most successful in the history of UM, but the largest and most successful fundraising effort in the history of the entire state,” he said.

Despite the progress and academic accolades raked in by the university, including its national recognition for COVID-19 research, Bodnar said challenges remain. They are both financial and social, but the university is poised to tackle them both.

On the financial front, Bodnar said UM has made progress toward stability, though the realities of the global pandemic have worked to exacerbated lingering financial challenges. The school will continue to examine resource distribution to ensure growing programs receive needed revenue, he said.

“We can't be blind to the realities of market pressures and shifts in student interest in various academic programs,” Bodnar said. “Ignoring these puts the entire institution in peril.”

The social challenges may be equally menacing. It's rare for the state of the university address to take on political matters, though this year, those issues have unraveled long-standing practices, forcing companies and institutions to examine their very composition.

From racial inequality to a growing earnings gap, Bodnar said they can't be ignored. But the university setting is the right place to affect change, and Bodnar has appointed a diversity advisory council to “focus on creating a more equitable campus from the perspective of students” and tomorrow's leaders.

“This year, we witnessed a national reckoning with the history of racism in institutions across our nation,” he said. “It's important that we know that we all have work to do here, to examine and rehabilitate our own practices and policies, and ensure our curriculum and programming draw from intellectual traditions that can inform anti-racist, inclusive action.”