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Montana Voices: UM on the right path forward

UM President Sheila Stearns

By Sheila Stearns

Remarkably, it’s already my third month as University of Montana president. I have been learning about our challenges and opportunities, as well as acquainting (or reacquainting, in many instances) myself with students, faculty and staff. We are also engaged with the legislative session, with much at stake for higher education. My return to the University is at once uplifting and challenging.  Hal and I are honored to serve this incredible institution.

I’m writing today to provide a thumbnail sketch of the path forward for the University of Montana. The one caveat I offer here is that all of this – my thoughts about the future, my charge to the leadership at UM in addressing challenges and opportunities, and the many viable options for exactly how we’ll proceed – is fluid. This changes as new information becomes available. I challenge our leaders to be nimble to adapt to the shifting landscape of American higher education.  As you read these words, you may have an idea that could inform our decisions. I welcome participation from Missoula area business leaders, Chamber members, the community, our leaders and our friends.

In 2018, the University of Montana will celebrate its 125th birthday. That’s an historic accomplishment in itself, but it will also be the first Charter Day for our new president, whoever he or she may be.  By then, we will have a new strategic plan, and UM will be in the midst of invigorating organizational renewal.

My leadership team and I have created a Forward125 task force to position the University of Montana for the next decade and beyond. Forward125 – named with our 125th year in mind – is the umbrella under which a variety of initiatives aimed at organizational renewal will occur. My charge to the Forward125 task force is this:

  • Develop a two-part framework for a budget consistent with an enrollment of 11,000 student headcount for FY18; and for FY 19 and beyond.
  • Provide a platform for growth within that budget reality defined both in student headcount and program strength; and
  • Outline a process that engages campus stakeholders to shape the immediate and long-term future of our university.

I know many of you, as I was, are concerned about a student headcount of 11,000. This does not represent the ideal enrollment at UM. Rather, it is a cautious assumption of where we may be for the next two to three years. It is wise to budget conservatively.  Our enrollment numbers will increase over time, and may hit 12,000 sooner than we think.  The initiatives and actions being implemented today by Vice President for Enrollment & Student Affairs Tom Crady are like seeds sown now in anticipation of the crop they will yield in time. We will first stabilize the size of the incoming class, and then begin to grow in a sustainable manner.  I’m often asked what the “ideal size” for UM should be in terms of enrollment. I recall the days when we were about 15,000 students and – just as too few students creates challenges – we had difficulties then, too. I will ask the Forward125 task force to identify good indicators of optimal enrollment for UM.

Under our current budget, the university is spending more than 80% of its annual budget on personnel costs (salaries and benefits). As any business owner will tell you, the right mix of expenditures is key to the ability to grow strategically. Our current level of personnel expenditures are not sustainable.  They impede our ability to innovate in the strategic areas that will best serve our students. As you’d expect, decisions about personnel are not precise or linear.  We will examine our academic programs, the services we offer, the mix of students, our anticipated budget, tuition revenue and other factors, in careful consultation with shared governance campus leaders.

In addition to the work surrounding Forward125, I have dedicated myself to enhancing well-justified confidence in the University, internally and externally. Despite the challenges we’re facing, I come to work on this beautiful campus each day and learn about student achievements, faculty excellence, ground-breaking research and exciting innovation. In an early interview with the Missoulian, I mentioned the “star power” I see at UM. Let us never forget that despite our difficulties (which are certainly not unique to our university), we have star power all over the place.   We have more to brag about than the press has space or time to report.  Therefore, we are inventing more platforms for telling our story.

Finally, I have a few modest requests for you, our community and business partners. First, please engage with us as we move forward. I welcome your suggestions on Forward125, and the search for our next president. Contact my office to Invite me to your meetings, or send an email with your ideas. My second request is for your help in reminding others of Missoula’s gem: the University of Montana. Just as I seek opportunities to remind the campus community of our great fortune to be in the Garden City, I hope you will share my optimism and remind those in your personal and professional circles about our vibrant university.  Third, seek out our internships office to hire one of our students as an intern, if you haven’t already done so.  It makes a huge difference to them and is beneficial to you.   Finally, if you would like to assist with recruitment initiatives, watch for a future message in this forum from Vice President Tom Crady for specific alternatives.

My tenure as University of Montana president will be brief but, I hope, significant.  It may not be obvious to all yet, but we are definitely on a path for continued excellence into the future. Thanks to those of you who have reached out to welcome Hal and me and to offer your support as we move forward.  All of us at the University of Montana appreciate your encouragement and good will.

Sheila Stearns is the president of the University of Montana.