UM faces old challenges, new opportunities heading into academic year

University of Montana President Royce Engstrom delivered his 2016 State of the University address on Friday, where he noted the challenges of enrollment and the new opportunities facing the school. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

By Martin Kidston

New and returning faculty and staff gathered at the University of Montana on Friday for President Royce Engstrom’s annual State of the University address, one that praised the school’s achievements and recognized its challenges.

Among the convocation’s major announcements, UM has launched a new enrollment strategy built around stronger marketing and customer service. It also looks to revamp its strategic plan to recognize the changing face of higher education.

“After five years, the time has come to rewrite our strategic plan,” Engstrom told an audience of several hundred people gathered for the event. “The landscape has changed and many new people are part of our university, bringing with them new strengths and experiences.”

Several members of the university’s cabinet have retired since the close of the last academic year. They’ve since been replaced by new faces, including Beverly Edmond, who is serving as the interim provost and vice president of academic affairs, and Paula Short, the new director of communications.

With a new team in place, Engstrom has formed a Strategic Planning Coordinating Council to craft the next strategic plan, one that will replace the school’s 2011 initiative known as “Building a University for the Global century.”

That effort saw the creation of the Global Leadership Initiative and a push to increase funding for research and scholarship. Last year, the school received $87 million in external research funding while the UM Foundation raised $53.7 million – both marks setting a new record.

“With the start of the fall semester, (the council) will launch a series of forums and input avenues to give everyone the opportunity to contribute to the new plan,” Engstrom said. “The (council) will write a comprehensive strategic plan that sets our path for the upcoming years.”

During his talk, Engstrom also acknowledged that enrollment remains a challenge, though it may also present opportunities. Simply put, he said, the university needs more students at all academic levels, including those from Montana and beyond.

To address the challenge, the school has already hired Tom Crady as its new vice president for enrollment management and student affairs. The position isn’t new, Engstrom said, but rather, it’s a reconfigured post with a focus on boosting enrollment.

“(Crady) was selected because of his record of performance in a highly competitive recruiting environment, as well as his knowledge on data and his laser-beam focus on providing prospective students what they need to make a decision,” Engstrom said.

Under the new enrollment effort, Engstrom said, the university’s response to student inquiries will happen faster, and communication with prospective students will begin earlier. The size of the school’s database of prospective students will also double by focusing on new non-resident markets.

Engstrom said the enrollment push also will increase the university’s television and social media presence. Student achievements will receive more attention, as will customer service.

“We have considerable work to do in this area,” Engstrom said. “We’re in a highly competitive market where students have choices. They’re making decisions based just as much on how welcome they feel, and how their questions are addressed, as they are on curriculum and location.”

Over the past several years, the universities also has made efforts to revisit its curriculum. Engstrom said the curriculum will remain under review, though liberal arts and sciences will remain a strong part of the school’s programming.

At the same time, he said, the university’s mission is broad, and it must prepare students for specific occupations, including those in health, business, data, and entrepreneurship.UM2

“At our core, from day one of this institution, has been the liberal arts and sciences, and those disciplines will remain at our core,” Engstrom told reporters after his address. “But we also need to recognize that many of today’s students and today’s parents are looking for majors that lead a little bit more directly – in their mind – to a job. We do have a responsibility to offer a range of majors and programs that today’s students want and need.”

Despite the challenge that remains enrollment, the university logged a number of success over the past year. The school’s athletes continue to excel both on the field and in the classroom, and several academic departments continue to receive national honors, Engstrom said.

Among them, the Wildlife Biology Program was ranked by Academic Analytics as the best in the North America, while the School of Business ranked 18th for its rate of students who passed the CPA exam.

UM was the only school in the Northwest to break the top 20, Engstrom said.

“Today’s world of higher education is characterized by conditions unlike those in the past,” Engstrom said. “The next five years will be exciting and they will require hard work and creative thinking on our part.”

Contact Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com