MSU Billings faces Day of Reckoning as enrollment drops 20 percent

By Joe Michels/

The impending departure of Montana State University Billings Chancellor Mark Nook to become the president of the University of Northern Iowa raises the question of whether Montana and Billings are really invested in the future and success of MSU Billings.

In the past decade, MSUB has had four chancellors, four provosts and four deans of the College of Business. It also saw the departure of a long-time director of libraries. The MSU Billings Foundation has its third president in three years.

Ed Kemmick/

Enrollment on the main campus has decreased 20.2 percent in the past decade, while the two-year City College enrollment, following national trends in community and vocational colleges, has experienced an enrollment increase of 28.9 percent in the past decade.

The fund drive for Yellowstone Hall, the proposed new science facility, continues to flounder, with a Montana legislative appropriation of $10 million being released contingent on MSUB raising an additional $5 million. Time and the cost of materials have increased the expected total cost of this new facility to be closer to $20 million. Thus, not $5 million, but more likely $10 million needs to be raised.

In December, an editorial in the Billings Gazette urged MSU President Waded Cruzado, Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian and members of the Montana Board of Regents to begin an immediate search for a new chancellor to lead the Billings institution.

However, the real question that must be answered before selecting a new chancellor is, “What is the purpose, role and mission of MSU Billings?”

I don’t think that anyone really knows the answer to that question, not the students, the faculty, the administration—either in Billings or Bozeman—and not the Board of Regents. Does anyone really care?

Now is the time to address the tough questions:

  • If enrollment has decreased 20.2 percent in the past 10 years, have the requisite university administrative overhead and program offerings seen a complementary decrease?
  • Does a university like MSU Billings need six different colleges, with a total university enrollment of fewer than 4000 students?
  • If Billings and Montana really support MSU Billings, why has it taken more than five years to raise the additional funds to build Yellowstone Hall?

The answer to these questions— let’s be brutally honest here—appears to be that nobody really cares. If Billings really is supportive and invested in its hometown university, how is that support manifested? Indifference, apathy and wanton disregard for the success of the university are all characteristics that I see. How else can one conclude anything differently?

The key role that interim chancellor Ron Larsen should play is to use his “extraordinary leadership skills” (President Cruzado’s words) to lead all university stakeholders in identifying what MSU Billings represents in 2017.

This means terminating programs, reducing faculty, combining colleges, eliminating administrative, programmatic and overhead spending, and establishing new programs that attract, motivate and enhance student learning.

This study cannot be a four-year, study-and-analyze effort—it must be a three- to six-month strategic, focused exercise with clearly defined objectives, goals and metrics that will create a starting roadmap for the new chancellor to employ as he or she begins at MSU Billings.

Make no mistake: this is a hard, tough, painful exercise to endure. However, this exercise is now required if MSUB is to retain any remaining relevancy and vibrancy in Montana higher education.

To bring in another new chancellor, after the previous one left after only 29 months, and expect this new individual to achieve success is at best foolhardy. Einstein is credited with saying, “Insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Now is the time to do something significantly and radically different if MSU Billings is to have any chance of future success.

Joe Michels is the managing principal of Solomon Bruce Consulting LLC, an international advisory services practice with offices in Fort Worth, Texas. He served as the dean of the College of Business at MSU Billings from 2002 to 2005. He is currently admitted as an adjunct faculty member to the graduate business faculties at the University of North Texas in Denton and the University of Texas at Arlington.