State of the University 2003 - The University of Montana

George M. Dennison
The University of Montana

Missoula, Montana
2 September 2003



Good afternoon and welcome. I intend to include everyone with the greeting, but most especially those for the first time attending an opening session for a new year at The University of Montana. While I cannot claim longevity on this campus, at the close of this year I will establish a record for service as President, assuming, of course, I make it through the year. I have thought about the prospect quite a bit, and I like the feeling. Those familiar with the history of The University of Montana know it has earned considerable notoriety over the years either as a graveyard for Presidents or a rest stop for those on their way somewhere else. Approaching 14 years in the role, I still have the sense of humility and wonder stirred by the initial appointment. My friends, as well as those who prefer a different appellation, know that I do not lack for confidence and tell it as I see it. To have the responsibility to lead a great university seems to me the ultimate honor. I recall vividly a question someone asked during the interview sessions in 1990: If you get the appointment, will you commit to stay at least ten years? I replied that I had control over only acceptance; someone else had to decide the tenure. Today I find it even more humbling that people have continued the trust for almost 14 years.

These comments lead to my larger point. A considerable number of very good people have preceded you newcomers to The University of Montana, and they have stayed, forgoing other opportunities as they helped to keep the institution on track. This place has a powerful hold on people, for a variety of reasons. People come and they remain, and they make a difference. The size of the institution, its openness to innovation and creativity, and the limited extent of administrative surface provide opportunities that more than compensate for the frequently noted scarcity of resources. Those with the ideas and the perseverance to pursue them realize their aspirations through their own efforts and the collaboration of their peers. Every program on the campus exists because of the energy, effort, and resourcefulness of the faculty and staff members dedicated to it. If programs emerged only when new resources became available, the University would never have attained its current stature. People make things happen here, far more than occurs elsewhere. While that seems from one perspective a disadvantage, it also has the effect of energizing people because they know they can make a difference. We welcome and expect a great deal of you newcomers.

Introduction of New Administrators

We open this year with several new members of the administrative team, each of whom I will introduce briefly. That we attracted such outstanding people to these very critical positions speaks volumes about the growth in stature and reputation of the University. Please hold your applause until I have introduced them all.

Dr. Teresa Branch arrived on campus in early June and assumed her position as Vice President of Student Affairs, joining us from Iowa State University. Over the course of the summer, she has demonstrated her capacity as a quick study and moved immediately to chart directions for the future. I believe the University will benefit from her contagious enthusiasm for and commitment to students.

Ms. Laura Brehm assumed her role as President of The University of Montana Foundation in August but visited twice to become familiar with the people and the issues. Actually, she knows Montana and Missoula well because of family connections--for example, her niece earned a J.D. degree from the School of Law. Having served with the Trust for Public Land and the University of California-Berkeley, she brings a wealth of fund-raising experience and expertise and a gift for collegiality.

Dr. Dan Dwyer accepted the appointment as Vice President for Research and Development in August after having served in a similar capacity at New Mexico State University and the University of Maine. A well-seasoned researcher and research administrator, he, too, has hit the ground running. With his leadership, we will not miss a step on the way toward attaining the status as a Doctoral-Research Extensive University.

Dr. Terry Weidner will join us later this month as Director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center at The University of Montana. He has held similar positions at the Universities of Missouri and Kansas, and also has considerable experience in government service at home and abroad. I believe he brings the skill and expertise that will assist us as we bring together the areas of strength we have in Asian studies and seek to develop new opportunities for students and faculty.

Please welcome these new administrators.

Getting to the Future

Historians insist that we learn only from the past, since we understand the present too late to do anything about it and the future remains entirely unknown. Yet the policy makers and governing entities demand that we plan and stand accountable for achieving the goals and objectives in our plans. To that extent, whether we like the association or not, we must follow the counsel of Karl Marx who urged, among other things, that we find ways to avoid becoming the victims of history. I leave to the historians to decide if anyone has ever successfully followed Marx’s imperative. In my view, we must act on the premise of a much better chance of achieving our goals if we seek to shape rather than simply experience the future. We must have a vision of the future and a flexible plan to attain it.

A quick review of recent developments provides credible evidence to support that perspective. Four years ago, we experienced a severe challenge because of a shortfall in nonresident enrollments and less than anticipated State funding. In addition, we had not yet developed the capacity to plan and implement our plans effectively. Over the ensuing four years, despite the continuation of the long-term and seemingly inexorable downward trend in the portion of our budget provided by State funding--a trend, by the way, that affects other states as well as this one, although Montana tends to lead the way--we have reestablished the financial stability of the University, reclaimed a more appropriate market share of enrollments, and launched new academic and research initiatives that have great promise for the University and Montana. Our planning processes work, although we must continually improve them. After providing significant assistance to the three affiliated campuses and dedicating the equivalent of one percent of the tuition increase in each of the next two years to enhance the quality of undergraduate education, we still have a balanced budget that will allow us to stay the course toward achievement of our goals. We will not make the progress we planned, but we will make progress.

I will not review the details of the budget today, since representatives from across campus participated in its development. Anyone wanting a copy can obtain it on request. While funding from the State remains depressed because of current economic conditions, we did receive the support we anticipated at the level recommended by the Governor. Our colleagues in several other states--even in this State--have much larger challenges to manage. As mentioned, we will provide transitional assistance to the three affiliated campuses for this biennium to avoid severe reductions in programs and work force. Under the terms of the plan, those campuses will have the time and support to position themselves for competitive advantage two years from now.

The approved budget requires tuition increases this and next year of 8.75 and 8.5 percent for the Mountain Campus and 6 percent in each of the two years for the College of Technology, calculated on the approved rates for 2003 exclusive of the surcharge. While everyone regrets tuition increases, it merits noting that few institutions across the country managed to keep the tuition increases that low. The students have expressed great concern about the ever-escalating costs of college, fearful that cost threatens to interfere with access. For the future, we must intensify our search for ways to become more efficient even as we strive to improve the quality of all that we do. Access to what remains the central question in this effort. If we fail to sustain quality, we will not have to worry about access, for the students will go elsewhere. Access and quality go inextricably together.

The budget for the next two years will serve us well for the most part, but certainly not with regard to salaries. During the last five or six years, we have made some improvement to average salaries on campus--not a lot, but nonetheless movement in the right direction. As most of you know, we will not do as well during the next two years, since the budget does not include much of anything for salary increases. We have negotiated very modest increases for the faculty, consisting for the most part of promotion and merit increments and a small pool to make a few market adjustments as counter-offers when other institutions come calling. In addition, we have put some funds aside to continue the implementation of the Montana Achievement Project, the new classification system for the staff. I regret this situation very much and pledge to do all I can to change it two years from now. For the present, I appeal for your cooperation and understanding during this difficult period of funding constraints in the State and on campus.

In that regard, I want to call attention to the work of Vice President Bob Duringer and his staff in Administration and Finance as they have sought ways to improve our situation. Because of their diligent implementation of best practices and innovative programs, the University has realized more than $1 million from savings and revenue enhancers. We have allocated these funds to alleviate some of the fiscal pressures, thereby avoiding the downward spiral that typically follows in the wake of budget cuts. The challenges before us would loom much larger if not for these proactive measures. Vice President Duringer and his staff deserve our appreciation for good and timely work.

In my own view, we have positioned the University strategically for the next phase of its development. I believe as well that we have learned from experience that the University will have the resources to flourish only as it contributes to the economic and social development of the State. I do not intend to suggest that we have reached agreement about the goals and means of assuring development, but we surely have ample basis for understanding that we rise or fall together in this State. Unless we contribute to the solution, we risk appearing as part of the problem. More important, unless we participate we ignore a vital part of our mission and abrogate our responsibility.

What does it mean, then, to commit the University to involvement in the social and economic development of the State? It means among other things that we must participate actively in the ongoing effort to develop a model of the Montana economy by providing the data and analyses necessary to that end, and then help as we can to shape a consensus about the desired economy of the future. If we play the role best suited to the capacity and capability of a research-oriented University, providing the information and the analyses to integrate the information into a coherent explanation while eschewing the provocative allure of dictating the outcome, we will gain the credibility so vital to the well being of the University and the State. As Regent John Mercer has commented on the basis of his experience as a long-time legislator, governors, legislative leaders, and business leaders have all in their turn, and sometimes collaboratively, attempted to develop the Montana economy, but to little avail. Jointly with our colleagues in the Montana University System, we have a wonderful opportunity to help shape this next effort, and we must seize it. By doing so, we will demonstrate the salience of Regent Mark Semmens’ argument that higher education represents an investment in the future, not an expenditure in the present.

Making such a commitment does not mean that we can neglect or telescope the University mission to discover, disseminate, and preserve knowledge. Extending knowledge through technology transfer and active involvement in planning for economic and social development does not satisfy our public mission as a “high seminary of learning,” in the words used frequently in the 19th century to describe the new state and land-grant universities. While we must participate to enhance economic viability and further cultural enrichment, we must make certain that we provide an education that prepares people for productive, engaged, ethical, and meaningful lives in an increasingly technological and interdependent world. The University cannot fulfill its mission unless we pursue that larger end.

In the final analysis, pursuing the University mission requires that we maintain a careful balance between active involvement and reflective engagement. A recent book by Shirley Slaughter and Larry L. Leslie, entitled Academic Capitalism (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), develops the argument that higher education in the four English-speaking countries--the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia--has gone perhaps too far in the direction of responsiveness to national and state policy and the market. With the advent of the global market and a world economy dominated by multi-national corporations, national and state governments have adopted policies and incentives to utilize higher education as the means to assure national and state competitiveness. As a result, the authors argue, academic programs stand or fall by reference to market needs rather than social and intellectual development, and academic research increasingly resembles techno-science seeking commercial application rather than the discovery of new knowledge.

Many will recognize here an old argument dressed in new clothing about the role and function of higher education. Since at least the dawn of the 20th century, the higher education community has divided over the merits of education versus training and applied versus basic research. As we respond to the challenge before us, we must avoid the extremes of either-or, and always attend to the balance between action and reflection, as Derek Bok urges in his most recent book entitled Universities in the Market Place (Princeton University Press, 2003). We enter the market or become irrelevant, even as we risk losing our objectivity. We must always protect the credibility of the University as a source of impartial knowledge. Doing so will require constant vigilance and discussion. But we cannot stand aloof and demand exemption from the challenge.

Nor can we claim a privileged position for our arguments in the public discussion of ends and means. Universities provide the fora for open and free discussion of all issues, and we cannot insist upon that freedom and openness only for certain arguments and perspectives. In an open environment, reason, evidence, and logical analysis have the edge and typically carry the debate. As professionals committed to the maintenance of sufficient public space to accommodate ranging debate and dialogue on and off the campus, we have the responsibility to act on the basis of rules of conduct conducive to that end. In my view, The University of Montana satisfies the criteria that define an open forum, but not everyone agrees with me. Experience teaches that most perspectives contain a kernel of truth, and that the broadest and most informed perspective has the capacity to accommodate and explain the more limited ones. I urge, therefore, that we reflect and act on the responsibility of academe to adhere to the principles that alone assure open and free exchange of ideas. Failure to do so undermines any claim we have to academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

As mentioned, I believe that we have taken the necessary steps to prepare for active involvement in the process of restructuring the economy of the State and improving the quality of life of Montanans. The innovative efforts of faculty researchers have contributed significantly to economic development, both in terms of the attraction of millions of dollars to the State to pay for salaries and materials and the stimulation of spin-off companies to carry new inventions and products to the market. The business incubator across the Clark Fork from campus, formed as a joint venture between the University and the Missoula Area Economic Development Corporation, with critical support from the Montana delegation in Congress, makes our commitment clear. The work of other members of the faculty to provide counsel and expertise to agencies of State government expands our involvement beyond the economic domain and enhances our contributions. The dedicated effort of the arts and humanities faculty members to extend the cultural bounty of the University to communities around the State and region have enlivened public discussions and improved the quality of life. The active involvement of faculty, staff, and students in community service and other voluntary activities have helped thousands in need while also improving services and amenities. The record of achievement and service manifests our commitment to active involvement.

At the same time, the impressive research and creative contributions of the faculty, staff, and students to new and advanced knowledge and insight reflect the commitment to reflective engagement. During the last two years, this faculty produced more than 750 scholarly articles in refereed journals--with a significant number in the most prestigious journals—40-plus books, and hundreds of invited presentations and lectures. A respectable number have won book awards, other forms of national recognition, or election as distinguished scholars and practitioners. Still others have exhibited their artistic work, produced plays and concerts, and won acclaim for their creative contributions. I find most relevant the deliberate effort to test and analyze through reflection the experience and insights obtained through direct action and involvement in the real world of human interaction. In my view, this careful and balanced approach illuminates John Slaughter’s insightful analogy about the relationship between teaching and research: Research is to teaching as sin is to confession; if you are not involved in the former you have no need for the latter.

On these bases, I think the record of achievement demonstrates conclusively that we have maintained the requisite balance between active involvement and reflective engagement, even as we must always attend to it in the future. We can influence the public dialogue that will shape the future only insofar as we protect and preserve our credibility through the pursuit of new knowledge and insight tested by fire in the process of open and free exchange on as well as off the campus. More important, the people of this State need the assistance that we can offer if we satisfy the mandates of the University mission.

Goals for the Coming Year

In each of my 13 years as President, I have outlined specific initiatives for the coming year. After listening carefully to the campus conversations, I seek to distill from the dynamic dialogue a brief list of items demanding immediate action. That I have singled out these few items means only that I believe they merit close attention. In a larger sense, we must stay the charted course that has served us well, making corrections as needed to navigate these turbulent waters. The Strategic Directions for The University of Montana-Missoula provides the chart for the voyage. I will review seven initiatives for the coming year.

Undergraduate Education

The Provost has identified a goal of improving the quality of undergraduate education during the next few years by increasing the involvement of our best faculty members in teaching undergraduate courses, especially general education courses. Achievement of this goal will appropriately nurture the core of the University. To that end, we have set aside funds equivalent to one percent per year increase in tuition for the next two years to appoint 12 new regular faculty members by the beginning of Fall Semester 2004. I will release the funds as the Provost certifies the identified needs and approves the appointments. Since we cannot conduct searches in time to make regular appointments for this year, we will rely on temporary and part-time faculty members for one year. By design, this initiative will not result in the appointment of new faculty members exclusively to teach general education courses, but rather it will provide the means to involve more members of the regular faculty in undergraduate education. The disciplines of the new appointees will depend upon pressing needs and responsiveness within the affected Departments.

Research and Graduate Education

The faculty members of this University have established a truly astonishing record in the success rate and volume of funded research awards, growing from about $7 million in 1990 to more than $60 million in 2003, with more than 60 percent acceptance of proposals submitted during the year. At the same time, annual expenditures in support of research now exceed $49 million, and the University receives in excess of $6 million in reimbursements for indirect costs. Each year, I raise the bar. For the coming year, I challenge Vice President Dwyer and the faculty researchers to exceed $65 million in new awards. However, as the volume continues to increase, we must attend ever more closely to the balance between basic and applied research. As the old adage has it, if you place too much emphasis on application, soon you will have nothing to apply. In addition, we must insist even more firmly that the research projects support graduate education because of our responsibility to prepare the next generation of intellectual leaders. Finally, we will have to assess carefully the need for infrastructure to assure the institutional support for research and graduate education.

Academic Program

Development Involvement in economic development requires close attention to the University’s program array, with special concern for those programs that serve the training needs of business and industry and the research and graduate education mission of the University. Of course, we must not focus so closely on specialized training and research and graduate education that we neglect the primary mission to educate the next generation of leaders. During the coming year, I challenge the Provost and Deans to develop at least two new training programs and two doctoral programs, while also identifying the needs for new baccalaureate and master’s programs. The doctoral programs will contribute to the effort to attain the Doctoral-Research Extensive Carnegie designation that requires a three-year average of 50 doctorates awarded annually, and the training programs will reflect our commitment to workforce development.

Economic Development

The Regents have initiated a broadly participative process to model the Montana economy in order to facilitate the identification of goals and the specification of the means to attain them. We have the unique capability and capacity, in collaboration with our colleagues in the Montana University System, to gather and make available the requisite data and analyses essential to the process. We can also participate in the determination of appropriate goals. Finally, when given the opportunity, we must accept our responsibility to assist in the implementation of means to achieve the designated goals, no easy task and one certainly resplendent with risk. Nonetheless, we must participate since our involvement improves the prospect for success.

Community Involvement and Counsel

Several of the Colleges and Schools of the University have active advisory councils, while others have yet to develop mechanisms to assure appropriate involvement in their activities and initiatives by interested and affected members of the larger public. Those Colleges and Schools, or Departments and Programs when appropriate, that do not have functioning advisory councils must take action during the coming year to establish or revitalize them. In doing so, it behooves those responsible for establishing the councils to make certain that they do not restrict participation to only those community members who share their particular perspectives. We must bring in the critics as well, since only through debate and discussion enlivened by a diversity of views can we make certain that we have charted the proper course for the maturation of the University as a “high seminary of learning.” I have asked the Provost and Vice President Dwyer to work closely with the Deans on this initiative.

International Education and Exchange

For several years, we have worked to increase the opportunities for students and faculty to participate in international exchange programs. However, student participation has increased very modestly--for example, international student enrollment has actually declined because of global conditions--and the faculty and staff participation rate has not kept pace with that of the students. Moreover, students and faculty alike indicate a preference for shorter terms of exchange rather than a full year. The International Programs Committee has proposed more emphasis on the development of semester exchanges, and the identification of incentives for increased faculty involvement, including recognition for participation, some additional financial assistance, and new provisions in the evaluation process to prevent negative results because of absences from campus. One very simple but nonetheless important way to respond requires only that we publicly recognize those faculty members who accept exchange appointments. I have asked the Provost to work with Vice President Branch, Assistant Vice President Mehrdad Kia, and the appropriate faculty committees to evaluate these proposals and make recommendations.

Recruitment and Retention

We have done well recently with student recruitment, mitigating the effects of the volatility that wreaked havoc about four years ago. But we cannot afford to relax, since the demographic data indicate a leveling off and downward trend in the number of Montana high school graduates during the next few years. On the other hand, the cohort group will continue to increase in certain other areas of the country, although the composition of the cohort will change dramatically. Specifically, the number of Latinos and Asian Americans will increase dramatically. We must monitor our efforts carefully and identify new markets for development to make certain that we meet our enrollment goals. At the same time, we must continue the implementation of the new admission procedures and retention efforts. It makes little sense to recruit students if we lose them during the freshman and sophomore years because either 1) we failed to meet their needs, or 2) we provided insufficient information and assistance to assure a match between student and institution at admission. We also have under consideration some proposals to assist with international recruitment to enhance the diversity and broaden the global perspectives on campus. Recent studies indicate that we have much yet to do to assist Native American students as they make the transition from the Tribal Colleges and Reservation communities to the University. And, finally, we must review carefully our financial assistance programs to make certain that they facilitate our recruitment and retention efforts. I have asked the Provost, Vice President Branch, and Vice President Duringer to consult the appropriate faculty and other committees and develop responsive initiatives to meet these challenges.


I serve as a member of the Commission on Colleges and Universities that accredits the colleges and universities in the Northwestern states, including Montana. For several years, the Commission has stressed the requirement that campuses must develop and implement outcomes assessments plans directly connected to the institutional budgeting processes. Many will recall the recommendation in our last accreditation report in 2000 that The University of Montana must continue this unfinished work, since assessment has not yet taken root across the campus. The mandate to develop effective outcomes assessments manifests the increasingly insistent demand from the State and national governments for accountability. We purport to have educational goals and objectives, but we offer little or no evidence that we achieve these goals and objectives. For example, we make rather grand statements about the value of the general education program components in the baccalaureate degrees, but we have yet to provide the direct or surrogate support for those assertions. As the Congress prepares for the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act next year, I believe we will see an effort to amend the Act to require meaningful outcomes assessments as the price for receiving federal funding. We can best deflect that misguided effort by taking action ourselves. I have asked the Provost to initiate new work in this regard.


I will close as I began by repeating my welcome for another year. As the agenda indicates, we have much to do. But as an old friend once remarked, thank goodness for the challenges, since they make life interesting and stimulating. Some have spoken longingly of at least a brief respite from so much interest and stimulation, but to no avail. The challenges persist even as they change in appearance, and we must engage them. Based on experience, I have full confidence that the University will flourish even under the trying circumstances that prevail and persist. And I have absolutely no doubt that our success will redound to the benefit of the State.

Thank you very much for your commitment and dedication. Have a great year!