Blog from President Bodnar

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February 7, 2018 - Early Reflections 

Dear UM Community,

Thank you to everyone who joined me for our community meetings last week as I shared some of my early reflections and outlined key focus areas in the near term. I appreciated the constructive feedback in each meeting, and I am continuing to learn a great deal as I reach out across campus. I want to offer a summary of our discussions as well as some immediate next steps. If you missed the presentation, you can view it on MCAT or review the slides on my communications page.

UM is at a pivotal juncture as we mark the institution’s 125th year. We have the opportunity, and the imperative, to build on the University’s historic strengths in the sciences, arts and humanities, and professional programs. A UM education provides an interdisciplinary, broad base of knowledge that enables today’s graduates to think critically, tackle tough challenges and navigate dynamic complexity. It is not a matter of the sciences or humanities, for instance. The power of a UM education is in the “and” – it is the confluence of these disciplines that the world needs today. As Harvard’s president Drew Faust has said, colleges and universities have to not only prepare students to get their first job, we have to prepare them to succeed in their sixth, seventh, and eighth jobs.

Yet even though post-secondary education is more important than ever before, we understand that all of higher education is facing eroding public confidence in the value of a college degree. We must ensure that UM’s educational experience is accessible, relevant, differentiating, and valuable. We will enhance UM’s future distinction and excellence in ways that continue to deliver substantial positive impact and results for our students.

In order to chart a strong future direction for the University, I have outlined four areas of focus to guide our work:

Pursue excellence and innovation across the institution

As I said at the presentations, excellence is not an accident. It does not happen automatically and cannot be sustained without intense effort.

It is time to build on the important prioritization and strategic planning processes that have been completed over the last couple of years. These processes have helped us think more deeply about assessment, investment, and program sustainability. With continued academic excellence as our guiding principle, we can now build on our most distinctive strengths, identify emerging opportunities and shape an innovative curriculum matched to student, employer, and state needs.

This semester, the provost and I will charge the University Planning Committee to take the lead in synthesizing all the various planning efforts and crystallizing a unified strategic vision with clear academic priorities. We will nominate some new members for the committee as well, to offer fresh perspective as we work to sharpen our focus on those programmatic areas that create the most distinctive UM education we can offer our students in the years ahead.

Emphasize stewardship and sustainability

As you know, UM also faces specific budget challenges in the short term that we must address purposefully and directly. The University has a structural deficit, due in part to a 25 percent decline in enrollment over several years while expenses continued to increase. For FY 2019 the gap between expenses and enrollment revenue along with state support is $3.5 million. However, that does not provide a complete picture. We must account for other revenue reductions and expenses – such as increased operating expenses, adjustments to millage funding, waivers and investments in recruitment/retention. Those adjustments will total perhaps another $6 million that we need to take into account when assessing total revenue and expenses year after year.

We must address our budget realities for the long term in a way that reflects our good and careful stewardship of this institution. One-time patches and across-the-board cuts are not strategic or sustainable over time. We will embark on a five-year plan to resolve the structural deficit and provide resources for future investment in our strategic priorities. This plan includes reducing expenses in line with our current budget and focusing on increasing revenue through increased enrollment and retention.

Our work to reduce expenses will be informed in part by the APASP process. We know we will need to make some difficult decisions about programs as we do this work, guided by our principles of excellence and institutional distinction. On the revenue front, the more quickly we can make progress on recruitment and retention, the sooner we will be able to invest additional programmatic resources.

Recruit, retain, and graduate students

Recruiting students who will benefit from a UM education, and supporting their success through graduation, is our core mission. Improvements in recruitment and retention are also key drivers for long-term University strength.

Recently I initiated an assessment of our admissions processes, which identified several opportunities for enhancement, including marketing strategies and technology improvements. Telling the UM story more effectively and implementing contemporary recruitment processes are important operational next steps. On the retention front, we want to improve not only our overall graduation rates, but also look carefully at how we can elevate the persistence rate of students from first to second year, where we see a real opportunity for improvement. While our most important motivation in improving retention is for student success, the financial impacts of increasing of doing so will enable increased strategic investment across the institution. Our students and the institution will benefit immensely from our focused efforts in this area.

In my presentations, I chose an example of one of our faculty providing extra care and support for a student facing adversity. When I think about the many ways in which students can get off track in their education, I’m reminded that there must be mentors in their lives to help them get back on track. A powerful piece of the UM story lies in our dedication and investment in student success.

Mission first, people always

This University has persevered through significant challenge, though I know it has taken a toll on campus climate and morale. As I’ve said, one of my own core values as a leader is to create a supportive environment where each of us can do our best work. We understand that student success is our top priority, and that singular focus provides great clarity and unity. In addition, we must build a community that seeks and celebrates diversity, offers professional development opportunities for our employees, promotes a safe campus, and strengthens our sense of community.

I have appreciated the ideas and constructive feedback many of you have offered in the course of my first month on campus as well as in the presentations this week. I know how deeply this community cares about the University, and how much pride we share. The four areas of focus I have outlined can serve as the lenses through which we build our future strategic vision and make decisions. There is an urgency to our work, for sure, but also a purposefulness. We have a defining moment in which we can intentionally design UM’s future strength and differentiation. The national context only makes it even clearer: There is a social compact in public higher education to provide an accessible and high quality educational experience that delivers positive impact for our students and for our state. We want to ensure UM delivers on that compact now and into the future.

The most powerful message I hope you’ve taken from my presentations, my communications, and my actions in this first month on campus is one of choice. We have challenges and also great opportunities. We have difficult decisions before us because excellence is not an accident. We have a choice: we can choose to defer those decisions and allow our university to drift, or we can choose to act now to be clear, intentional, and bold.

I choose the latter. I hope you’ll join me in that decision so that we can work together to ensure that the University of Montana is, indeed, what the world needs in a university today.

 

Seth