Montana Voices: 10 years on, MSU president is a Montanan and state is grateful

Steve Barrett

There was nothing logical about choosing Waded Cruzado as Montana State University’s 12th president. She would be the first female president of a Montana flagship campus, English was her second language, and her Ph.D. was in the humanities. All that to take the reins of an already successful university with a fine reputation based on science, agriculture, engineering and research.

I chaired the Board of Regents at that time and our search committee had narrowed a field of 50 excellent candidates to a fine remaining few. The Regents discussions were long and serious. All options were weighed and considered. Our first choice was Waded, but we were aware that other schools were pursuing this exceptional candidate.

On a donated plane, Sheila Stearns (Commissioner of Higher Education), Regent Clay Christian (Chair of the Search Committee) and Chair Steve Barrett flew to Las Cruces, where Waded was the interim president of New Mexico State. She greeted us with gifts of New Mexico Hatch peppers and a smile we soon learned to recognize as her trademark. Over a bowl of green chili at a local restaurant, we pressed our case.

What MSU had to offer was not the most money, but many exciting challenges. The opportunity to take an already excellent school to an even higher level and to make an impact not on just our students, but on our state. A chance to make real the promise made by the Morrill Act that created land grant universities like MSU, New Mexico State and the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, where Waded graduated. To bring education and learning to the sons and daughters of all Montanans.  To her credit and our delight, Waded Cruzado welcomed these challenges.

Our choice was not universally acclaimed. People questioned me and other board members about choosing someone with Waded’s background to head our ag and engineering schools, to interact with farmers and ranchers throughout the state and to be a strong booster for Bobcat athletics. The choice raised skepticism in some quarters.

Ten years later, that skepticism has dissipated through leadership and teamwork. Graduation rates have increased dramatically, with MSU graduating more students in less time than it has in modern history, with research dollars at an all-time high, enrollment at almost 17,000, and student accomplishment in the form of research, national honors and scholarships at record levels.

The campus has been improved for better student learning: the Jake Jabs College of Business, Asbjornson Hall, the American Indian Hall and adding end zone seating to the stadium. Thanks to Waded’s good relationship with the Legislature, historic Romney Hall is being renovated to serve more than a thousand students a day. The list goes on.  And on.

But MSU’s success is more than numbers. We’ve seen a new enthusiasm in our state for higher education.  When starting a speech, Waded always says, “Welcome to your University.” Montanans feel that ownership in their bones.  When she’s traveling through small Montana towns, people stop her on the street and express their appreciation.  The Six Mill Levy passed dramatically statewide, adding long-term money to the entire University system. Enthusiasm about education can be felt throughout the state.

These great accomplishments are also the result of tremendous effort by faculty and staff. Waded has worked to create a team that helps and supports each other, top to bottom. The faculty, staff and students work through issues arising from change and continue to teach, learn and grow. Those accomplishments are a reflection of leadership as well as the great students, faculty and staff.

Over these 10 years, Waded has become a Montanan. Boots now fit her as well as high heels. She has a camper trailer and travels the state with her dogs Blanco and Mia, enjoying the wonders of the Big Sky.  She high fives the entire crowd when MSU scores a touchdown and “Go Cats!” is always on her lips.

At the beginning of this New Year, as MSU’s President Waded Cruzado celebrates her first 10 years, we join all Montana in saying “Thank You.”

Retired attorney Steve Barrett of Bozeman is a former Chair of the Montana Board of Regents