By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

In the school's first live Twitter event, interim University of Montana President Sheila Stearns on Thursday touched on the “liberating power of constraint” and pledged to set a new course for the school, one that will celebrate the university's traditions while focusing on the realities of enrollment and budget.

Stearns, who replaced former UM President Royce Engstrom late last year, delivered her first midterm State of the University address to a full house, where she announced plans to focus on student retention, academic success, and the need to pare down faculty numbers to match current and anticipated enrollment.

She also looks to change the way the school perceives itself, moving from “we can't” to “we can.”

“ 'We are Montana' is not just a slogan,” Stearns said. “UM is proud of its heritage, and particularly proud of its students and alumni. We are resilient in the face of these current challenges. We're clearly skeptical about quick fixes, and we are, fundamentally at our core, confident about our future.”

Stearns said early projections suggest that this year's graduation class will be roughly 1,000 students greater than the fall's incoming class. While the school has adjusted its recruiting strategies, Stearns said the efforts will take time to manifest.

In the meantime, she said, the school must plan for a smaller enrollment.

“We're doing great recruiting, but it will take a little while for that seed corn to blossom and bear fruit,” she said in a press conference after her address. “We're going to have smaller classes going through the system for the next three or four years.”

On the upside, Stearns said, the university has launched a number of initiatives to drive up enrollment. It has mailed applications to 30,000 prospective students and remains the only university in the state to offer micro-scholarships to high-school students. It also has eliminated registration cancellation and holds due to late or unpaid fees.

While the university can again be a campus of 15,000 students, Stearns added, she plans to budget for 11,000 students, and has already launched efforts to do so.

“That needs to adjust for the next three or four years for that very real, practical planning,” she said. “Right now, we're at about 81 percent personnel. We need to bring that down into the low 70s. We can do it. We can do it intentionally and respectful of our situation, but we need to do it. It's not sustainable.”

Stearns said it was understandable for the university to increase its number of faculty and staff as enrollment grew. While it was easy to grow, she said, it's more difficult to cut back.

“When I say we need to budget cautiously, I mean we need to budget for an employee cadre that matches the number of students we're serving,” she said. “It's not as easy to retract in a very wise way. But it's best to just budget for it, and make sure we're ready to balance our budgets, not do it in the spur of the moment, or in a way that causes consternation.”

Stearns also iterated her desire to focus on customer service and increase the school's retention rate. It currently sits at around 70 percent. She looks to increase that to 80 percent over the next few years.

Success on that front, she said, would serve as a “national championship.”

Sheila Stearns delivers her address on Thursday at the University of Montana. (Photo courtesy of UM)
Sheila Stearns delivers her address on Thursday at the University of Montana. (Photo courtesy of UM)

“It's all about students,” Stearns said. “What I want to make sure is that the next president has a platform for growth. A platform in which we are committed. However many students we have is the exact number right now, and we're thrilled to have them and we'll serve them beautifully. Everything else will take care of itself.”

As Engstrom did in the past, Stearns highlighted what she billed as the university's “star power.” She named several faculty members, including Debra Magpie Earling, the first Native American dean of the school's creative writing program, and Anya Jabour, a professor in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

She also included UM researchers John McCutcheon, Rob Smith and Orion Berryman, each honored by the National Science Foundation.

“Our research is really rising, about $87 million worth last year, and this year we're already around the mid-$60 million,” she said. “We're well on track to exceed last year's pace for research. It's these people, these faculty, who make that happen.”

Clayton Christian, the commissioner of higher education with the Montana University System, introduced Stearns to the campus last month after announcing that Engstrom would be stepping down from the post.

Christian said Stearns offered her service on an interim basis when asked, and he encouraged the university's faculty and staff to take advantage of her knowledge and participate in the budgeting process and the decisions to come.

“This is not time to sit back and wait for the next iteration,” Christian said. “This is the time to move our university forward. We have great leadership in place. This is the time to take advantage of those opportunities, to write our budget, to strengthen our enrollment, and ultimately to set a course for the next decades to come on a path of prosperity for the UM.”