Montana Regents celebrate historic $7M donation, hear enrollment bright spots

Main Hall at the University of Montana. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)

Montana is ahead of the game with at least one metric — undergraduate enrollment dropped 3.2% nationally during the last year, but in the Treasure State, it’s up 4.9% by headcount, according to a report Thursday to the Montana Board of Regents.

“We’re bucking the trend on undergraduate enrollment because of a healthy increase in non-resident students,” said Tyler Trevor, deputy commissioner for budget and planning for the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.

The Board of Regents met Thursday at the University of Montana in Missoula and will continue their meeting Friday. Thursday, the Regents approved a couple of naming requests — for Montana State University’s College of Nursing to be called the Mark and Robyn Jones College of Nursing, and for the Montana Technological University’s Nursing Department to be called the Sherry Lesar School of Nursing.

At their morning session, the Regents also considered budget items in advance of action planned Friday. Several higher education officials noted it was the first time they had met in person on the UM campus since 2018 because of the pandemic.

Chair Casey Lozar kicked off the meeting with a couple of “outstanding achievements” across the Montana University System. UM startup incubator MonTEC received an $850,000 grant from the Google.org Impact Challenge for Women and Girls to support Indigenous women looking to start or grow a business in Montana, and the Missoula campus will collaborate with Salish-Kootenai College and Blackfeet Community College.

“UM was one of only six recipients in the United States to receive this grant,” Lozar said.

Additionally, Lozar congratulated Chancellor Les Cook at Montana Tech for an historic $7 million donation from Dave and Sherry Lesar, the latter whose name the nursing department will bear as the Sherry Lesar School of Nursing.

He also praised other enrollment markers as “phenomenal,” including the roughly 5 percent headcount bump across the system since last fall and nearly 17 percent increase in first-time freshmen since last year. The report from the Commissioner’s Office noted first-time freshmen are up this year compared to 2019, as well, by 8 percent, not just up compared to fall 2020, when the pandemic closed campuses.

“I wanted to just underscore the creativity, innovation and the work that both the campuses and the OCHE (Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education) team has put into increasing the conversation about the value proposition of being in higher education and what it means to our Montana families,” he said.

Salaries for the top higher education officials were on the agenda, but the recommended action was that the pay for most stay flat from last fiscal year to this one. Regent Bob Nystuen said he felt “disheartened” to see the raise amounts cited as “none” for a long list of employees.

If he could, he said he would give people 3 percent raises, especially since the leaders had powered the campuses through the pandemic. Additionally, he said he didn’t like to have to use “retention bonuses” because they are reactionary, a function of not paying people close to market values.

A $150,000 retention stipend is recommended for MSU President Waded Cruzado following an outside offer she received earlier. Brock Tessman, deputy commissioner for academic, research and student affairs, is recommended for a 26.58 percent increase, from $177,752 to $225,000; his is the only increase on the list of top campus and system officials, and the raise is described as for “retention.”

“We need to invest in our human capital, and I think this notion of zero percent increases doesn’t square well with me,” Nystuen said.

Nystuen also said campuses should look for ways to generate additional revenue and look at expenses. He said the regents need to look at how to drive additional enrollment and also consider raising tuition so campuses can afford to pay their workers, such as the people who clear snow from the sidewalks.

“While tuition increases capture all the headlines, I think it’s inevitable that we have to do that to preserve the integrity and the quality of this system,” Nystuen said.

But in his presentation, UM President Seth Bodnar said growing for the sake of growing isn’t the goal at the Missoula flagship, and he said he is especially proud of retention and recruitment achievements.

For example, since 2018, UM has pushed retention up a full 7 percentage points, from 68 percent to 75 percent, Bodnar said: “Our focus on retention has been deliberate. It has been comprehensive.”

He pointed to the way UM revised its new student orientation to be experiential and about helping students build community as one factor, and student advising as another.

He also noted the campus has put in place more robust systems for students who typically face greater challenges in higher education, and it’s seeing results. For example, he said Native American enrollment has grown 23 percent since 2018, and the campus has seen a 17 percent improvement in Native American retention in the same period.

“Those are big moves, and they’re not happening by accident,” Bodnar said. 

The Regents did not directly address some of the high profile difficulties at UM this semester, but one regent noted the host campus has had a tough fall, although he was not specific.

The challenges include a possible employee class action lawsuit filed in August alleging gender discrimination; a separate gender discrimination complaint filed by a former women’s basketball head coach this month; and dean and associate dean resignations at the law school following multiple complaints they blocked students from taking discrimination allegations, including sexual assault, to the Title IX office.

Regent Loren Bough said he wanted to tell Bodnar that he’s thrilled with the progress he’s making and partnerships he’s building, and he looks forward to supporting the president’s efforts. Bough said he looked forward to what’s ahead for UM.

“I know, President Bodnar, that you’ve faced some additional challenges this fall, but you’ve led the university with your usual kind of focused determination and enthusiasm,” Bough said.

The Regents will continue their meeting 8:30 a.m. Friday at UM.