Missoula legislators weigh in on search for new UM president

Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian, and Jim McCormick and Janice Fitzgerald of AGB Search, listen to the feedback Wednesday from Missoula-area legislators regarding the University of Montana’s search for a new president. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston

A group of western Montana legislators on Wednesday shared their vision for a new University of Montana president, one they hope will renew the school’s commitment to students, serve as a tireless diplomat in promoting academic success, and place the university at the forefront of emerging social trends.

Held in the University Center, the session marked the second day in which representatives of the Montana University System have met with area citizens, listening to their concerns and their hopes for a new campus leader.

Clayton Christian, the state’s commissioner of higher education, said that while the opinions have been diverse, several common themes have emerged and the feedback has been “incredibly positive.”

“Our focus has been to hear what everyone has had to say,” said Christian. “There’s great support for this institution and the foundation of this institution being liberal arts, but at the same time, about graduate education and the professional programs and how they can merge and work together.”

Joined by Regents Martha Sheehy and Fran Albrecht, members of the head-hunting firm AGB Search asked the Missoula delegation to describe the challenges they see facing the university and what they envision in a new president.

As part of that question, they were also asked why serving as the school’s next president would be an enticing proposition for the right candidate. As Rep. Nate McConnell, D-Missoula, put it, “people would be crazy to pass over this job.”

“They get to right a ship that when it’s right, is one of the premier institutions in the American West, across the country and even the world,” McConnell said. “We have the foundation here. It’s a big challenge and a great opportunity for success.”

McConnell shared the opinions of his colleagues on many fronts, adding that customer service may be one of the school’s greatest challenges. He believes the university must be more responsive to students and parents, and the next president should make it a priority.

“The university needs to be responsive to students and it needs to be very proactive,” McConnell said. “Parents need to know we’re in good shape here. A university president who focuses on students in that way is going to be really important.”

Rep. Andrea Olsen, D-Missoula, believes the next president should also place education above all other things. Without education, she said, society will fail to overcome its challenges.

“Education is the answer, and it’s the cheapest answer,” Olsen said. “We really need someone who can sell that commitment to education to the public. I want someone who’s inspired about education and who’s educated, and who really believes in spreading that.”

Sen. Sue Malek, D-Missoula, agreed that a focus on education should be the central focus on the next campus leader. She believes the university’s football program has trumped the school’s educational pursuits because it brings in money, and she disagreed with those who believe that a “business person” should be sought as the next president.

“When I hear people say we need to hire a business person as the president of the university, it really terrifies me,” said Malek. “It needs to be someone who understands higher education – the depth of higher education.”

Malek also believes the next president should place an emphasis on shared governance and include faculty, students and staff in university discussions. She also wants a president to consider programs that place the school ahead of emerging technologies and social needs.

Missoula legislators from left to right include Nate McConnell, Kim Dudik, Andrea Olsen, Bryce Bennettt and Sue Malek.

Rep. Kim Dudik, D-Missoula, added that UM could be a national leader on sexual assault, and the next president should be a champion for a proposed health science initiative.

“With the new budget coming up in the Legislature, we in Missoula are excited about having a new health science initiative at this university,” said Dudik. “I would hope new programs would continue to be built and that we won’t just focus on what we’ve always done, but also move into the future. I hope the new leader will take that health science initiative and do it.”

Rep. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, said that whoever is selected for the job, he or she must have a clear vision for where they want to take the university. Part of that vision must include buy-in from faculty, students and staff.

“If they can build a vision around recruitment, the kinds of programs we want to provide and around where we want to go in the long term, it will be a huge help for us in making sure we’re all rowing in the same direction,” said Bennett. “We need someone who will be a tireless advocate of the university.”

Jim McCormick of AGB Research said UM’s national reputation serves as a draw and will attract quality candidates. The listening sessions will help forge the job application and shape the field of candidates who respond.

A new president is expected to be named by the middle of next year.

“This is an outstanding university with its Rhodes Scholars, its Truman Scholars, its research,” said McCormick. “This has been a place since 1893 that has distinguished itself in the country as being an outstanding research university.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com