University of Montana President Seth Bodnar based his state of the community address on the theme of renewal, saying the institution has faced the pandemic squarely and continues to position itself for a stronger future.
On Monday, Bodnar joined city and county leaders in the annual State of the Community address, where he said student interest in the university is up over previous years and the school is undergoing both an academic and aesthetic revival, with upgrades planned across campus.
“Over the past year, as we’ve been dealing with the monumental challenges this pandemic has presented, we haven’t hit pause on our strategic thinking,” Bodnar said. “We’ve also been spending a lot of time thinking about what our institution needs to look like on the other side of this.”
Preparing students for success will continue to require adaptation and innovation, he said. During the pandemic, an appointed team began researching the elements of a “modern” university, picking off best practices employed by other institutions.
The world is changing quickly, Bodnar said, and the school remains committed to preparing students for tomorrow’s challenges.
“Employers and our society are actually calling more strongly today for students who are equipped with the knowledge and confidences that are a hallmark of an education today,” Bodnar said. “Critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork and innovation. We’re working to build on that strength, while also expanding our experiential and work-based opportunities.”
After years of recruitment challenges, retainment issues and a dwindling enrollment, Bodnar sees signs of change on the horizon. The number of students who have applied and been accepted into the university’s four-year college is up around 50% over previous years.
Still, he cautioned, uncertainty remains as the pandemic has yet to relinquish its hold.
“As students and families are navigating their college selection during a pandemic, they can’t visit campuses. We don’t know what the fall’s entering class will look like,” he said. “But we’re excited about the student growth we’re seeing in our university this spring.”
The school’s transition will continue to include change, which Bodnar said requires difficult decisions. As a public institution funded by taxpayers and tuition dollars, the school must examine how it allocates resources.
But it’s not a process of reducing resources. Rather, he said, the budget will remain relatively constant.
“As we move forward, some colleges will see increased budgets while some others will see decreases,” Bodnar said. “That approach to resource allocation is a new one here, and it will require some difficult decisions.”
Bodnar said those decisions will continue to enhance the university’s “rich” disciplines in the arts and humanities while acknowledging other areas of academic change.
“It allows us to make sure other colleges that are seeing nearly 100% growth in applications, like forestry, the environmental sciences, health and business are able to meet the rapidly growing demands from our students,” he said.
While the university undergoes an academic renewal, Bodnar said it will also see improvements to the campus infrastructure. The projects include nearly $100 million in upgrades approved before the pandemic, paid for with debt refinancing and the issuance of bonds.
The renovations include a new dining facility on the oval, and upgrades to classrooms and residence halls. A new Montana Museum of Art and Culture is planned on the north end of campus – a project more than a decade in the making.
Bodnar said the university also is working with the Legislature to construct a new building for the College of Forestry using Montana timber and novel wood-building techniques.
“This will provide our fastest growing college the added classroom and lab space needed to keep up with demand really from around the entire world,” Bodnar said. “The renewal taking place at UM should provide the Missoula community, our alumni base and future Grizzlies, with rekindled hope that our best days are ahead of us.”