Following a national search, the University of Montana has hired Sarah Swager as its new vice provost for student success. She will begin work on the Missoula campus in February.
In the newly created position, Swager will work with other members of the cabinet to oversee student affairs and guide key university auxiliaries like UM Dining, UM Housing, campus recreation and Curry Health Center to ensure that these areas support students. They’ll manage budgets, develop student programs and improve connections between university and students.
Born and raised in Sheridan, Montana, Swager graduated from a small high school with a class size of 29 students.
In a presentation last month at UM, Swager said she was not prepared to attend a much larger private university to study art and said she understands the challenges students face when moving to new places.
“I found that when I went to college, I was a bit of a fish out of water. I went to a college back East, a private liberal arts college, I was probably underprepared in ways I didn’t know until much later,” she said.
Knowing this, Swager emphasized the changes that could make UM more inclusive and student-centered. She focused on high-impact practices that promote deep learning and student engagement, connections with faculty, mentors and fellow students, and, most importantly, improving a student’s hope for their future.
“If a student feels confident and feels hope that they that they can actually get to their end point, they’re more likely to get there,” Swager said.
Selling what the university has to offer is a major part of recruitment in and out of the state, she said, and providing students better connections with faculty and both a professional and academic adviser will improve student satisfaction. Creating partnerships statewide with tribal and community colleges to make transitioning from school to school easier is another goal.
When Swager worked at Central Washington University, the administration collaborated with the student radio station and the communications department to develop a radio certificate program for employers. Engaging in these partnerships to help fuel students’ passions will be a focus as Swager learns more about the university and its staff.
“I think there are always opportunities, in a university like the University of Montana, where there can be relationships built between faculty and staff that have common interests, and we brainstorm about something really cool that would benefit students and we make it happen,” she said in an interview Friday.
Enrollment and retention provide another major focus for universities today, she said, and institutions must prioritize making students happy with their degree. Working on finding those students who are at risk of dropping out and providing excellent customer service matters.
“I would love to see if there are ways that we could have a look at ourselves at the University of Montana and say, ‘Are there ways we can improve the service we provide to students and will that have a meaningful and appreciable impact?’ I think it will,” she said.
Swager will leave her post as vice president for student affairs at Carlow University to take the position in Missoula.
In a news statement announcing the new vice provost, UM provost Jon Harbor said: “We are extremely excited to welcome Dr. Swager to campus. She has a great blend of experience and talents that will enhance our efforts to provide truly transformative experiences for students through an integrated approach to student success programs and services. Her past leadership includes significant accomplishments in innovative ways to enhance student success and retention.”
Swager holds an undergraduate degree in studio art from Colby College, a master’s degree in college student personnel from Bowling Green State University and a doctorate in higher education administration from the University of Michigan.
Her dissertation research focused on the impact of task and interpersonal elements between faculty and student partners in an undergraduate research program. That research continues to inspire her research and practice in critical ways, including data-informed retention strategies, change management, strategic planning and student success programs.
While Swager starts to learn more about the university’s staff in February, she hopes to start making small changes that will benefit students and the institution in the long term.
“It’s a thousand little things,” she said. “That’s what my role is, is to come in and make sure I’m taking a good hard look at where are we now, where is our talent, where can we move forward quickly,” she said. “Let’s start setting some goals and let’s go for it.”