Stearns to prepare UM for 125th birthday, 11,000 students

University of Montana President Sheila Stearns outlined a number of new strategies on Monday, April 3, 2017, as the school looks to trim its budget and grow its headcount as its 125th birthday approaches. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

When University of Montana President Sheila Stearns asked how many of those in the room considered student recruitment and retention as part of their job, nearly everyone raised their hand.

If they answered honestly, it means UM has several hundred recruiters activity engaged in growing the school’s headcount and preparing the flagship university for its 125th anniversary.

“That’s what I was hoping to see,” Stearns said of the hands in the air. “It has to do with the entire health of the university and what we do, especially when it comes to retaining students. We all have the ability to positively affect our recruiting yield.”

On Monday, in an address to the campus community, Stearns outlined a number of new strategies as the school looks to trim its budget, grow its headcount and review its academic offerings.

She also asked those in attendance to consider the school’s many successes when making public statements. Too often, she said, the message is focused on the university’s shortcomings.

“We’ve gotten into a habit of telling more and more often areas in which our service and delivery needs to improve rather than telling the stories in which we’re outstanding,” Stearns said. “Let’s start sharing the many things we’re doing well.”

Stearns, who replaced former UM President Royce Engstrom late last year, touched on many of the same issues delivered in her first State of the University address in January, where she announced plans to focus on student retention, academic success, and scaling back faculty numbers to match enrollment.

On Monday, however, she focused on “Forward 125,” a celebration of the school’s history and an initiative to build a budget consistent with an initial enrollment of 11,000 students.

“We’re going to put the foot on the gas peddle pretty fast and work on it this spring and summer and into early fall,” she said. “We need to get this done and not belabor it on and on – get some choices made about the university.”

The initiative also looks to set a platform for growth and outline a planning process. Stearns said that effort will engage stakeholders as the school looks to pare its budget back to roughly $143 million.

Stearns said it currently stands at around $146 million. The wild card remains state funding, which remains in play at the Legislature and could have impacts on the cost of tuition.

Forward 125 also calls for a review of academic programs and administrative services. A task force has been formed to explore recommendations, and a draft is expected this summer. The timeline presented Monday calls for adoption and implementation by December.

“My successor president will be starting between November and January, and he or she will have the ability to look at the plan and tweak it,” Stearns said. “I hope we do such a great job that this person can come in on our 125th year and put their vision into all of this and we move forward positively together.”

Stearns added that the search for a new president is running nationally and applications and nominations are starting to come in.

She expects to pass to her successor a fiscally sound university by the end of this year.

“When a university of our stature and reputation has an open presidency, people know and word spreads,” she said. “We’re very desirable.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com