State of the University - The University of Montana

George M. Dennison
The University of Montana

Missoula, Montana
22 August 1994

Good morning and welcome. I take particular pleasure in greeting those of you who have joined us for the first time this fall as we begin a new academic year. You have come at a very good time, from my perspective, and we wish you all the best as you start what we hope will be a long and satisfying career at The University of Montana. You have joined an exceptional faculty, one well known for its commitment to teaching, research and creative activity, and service. In fact, because of that commitment, we have managed to overcome a range of obstacles and to keep the University on course. We welcome you and anticipate that you will help us immensely in this important work.

Before I share with you some of my reasons for this optimistic assessment of the circumstances today, I want first to introduce two new members of the administrative team. I will introduce them in the order of their appearance on campus.

David Aronofsky joined us recently as University Counsel, following several years in private practice in Washington, D.C. He has wide ranging experience in higher education law and related areas, and enjoys a fine reputation as teacher and policy analyst. Since his arrival, he has contributed significantly to the effort to analyze the potential impact of the two referenda concerning State expenditures on the ballot in November. Please extend a warm welcome to David and make a point of getting to know him.

John Cleaveland comes to us from Georgia Tech in Atlanta to assume the position as Executive Director of Information Technology for the University. He has begun by becoming acquainted with faculty and staff to determine how people across campus rank the most pressing and critical technology needs. Please welcome John and take the time to let him know your perspective on the issues.

Now, to return to the comment made at the outset: I say that you have come during an auspicious time because of several recent developments. Of highest importance, we have nearly completed an innovative bargaining process designed to assure that the University can compensate its faculty at levels appropriate to the quality of their performance. The collaborative process that led to this result has brought us together to focus upon the challenges and find ways to address them. While none of us will get everything we wanted from the process, we have kept our attention focused upon the primary goals of achieving competitive salary levels while also assuring to students an education of the highest quality and providing services to the State that respond to real needs. The process is not yet complete, but the signs point toward a favorable resolution. I assure you that we will do all that we can to bring it to a successful conclusion.

I want particularly to express my appreciation to all the members of the bargaining team who worked so long and hard for this result. In many respects, this team broke new ground and set the model for others to emulate. Once approved by the Regents, this agreement will enable the University to realize its highest priority within a reasonable period -- competitive salaries for a dedicated, talented, and committed faculty. And we will accomplish that objective by helping ourselves rather than relying upon promises difficult for others to keep. That could never have happened without the cooperation, good faith, and tenacity of the faculty representatives who took the initiative to launch the effort. I commend them for their courage and perseverance, despite the difficulties along the way. We will prevail.

In another respect, the time seems auspicious because of the restructuring that has occurred within the Montana University System. The University of Montana now consists of four separate campuses in western Montana, with a fifth in Kalispell scheduled for addition during the year if all goes well. Despite this geographic concentration, however, the University retains its State-wide focus with mandates in certain disciplines and programs. But it also now has the responsibility of assuring the vertical articulation of programs from the short-term training course to the doctoral degree. How the new University will function remains for us to determine, although I believe that we have gotten off to a fine start. At present, I cannot say with any precision what the changes will mean to the average faculty or staff member. I believe, though, that successful implementation will ultimately provide new and enriching opportunities to the faculty, staff, and students, and will enable us to respond more effectively to the diversity of needs and demands within the State. It will take us several years to realize all the benefits of this reorganization, and we will undoubtedly experience some problems and challenges along the way. But I think the new arrangements offer unique opportunities to us to serve educational needs in Montana while also holding down costs so as to assure access to the largest number of students. We can succeed in this endeavor only through the efforts of all of us working together. The performance record to date of this faculty and staff persuades me that we can and will respond to the challenge.

These two developments require that we spend a good deal of time during the coming months with curricular issues. The agreement for competitive salaries also looks toward a new faculty-student compact for educational success. This new compact emphasizes learner productivity and accountability equally with faculty and administrative productivity and accountability. We can improve graduation rates and maintain high standards of educational effectiveness and efficiency, but only if we insist upon the active involvement of all participants in the educational process -- faculty, staff, and students. Any other approach will not accomplish the desired outcome. We must resist the temptation to substitute political rhetoric for critical scrutiny of educational goals.

During the year, we will need to look closely at the various curricula to assure ourselves that we have designed them appropriately to meet the needs of students. If revision appears necessary to the faculty responsible for the programs, then let's make the revisions. But let's not change simply for the sake of change, or to make life easier for ourselves or the students. And let's not settle for anything less than full discussion and thorough analysis of needs and appropriate responses.

Last year I stressed the need for an immediate reassessment of the structure and support for undergraduate education in order to insure that the University can fulfill its mission in the State. To that end, we enhanced the base budget for instruction significantly. In fact, an increasing portion of the University budget will go toward instruction over the next few years so as to achieve the goal of enhanced undergraduate education. No one disagrees with the proposition that we need to focus on the basics and assure that we continue to do well that which has brought distinction to The University of Montana in the past. We have disagreed only about the means to the commonly accepted end.

Let me add a caveat here. We cannot achieve our educational goal if we settle simply for increasing the budget without giving appropriate attention to the structure of the curricula and the academic services students need to progress through the curricula in a timely way. Resources alone will not satisfy the demands of students and the public today, but resources and renewed commitment together will assure success. To begin to address the challenge in the area of support services, we have asked Dean Jim Flightner to take a leadership role in a campus-wide student retention effort. I look forward to working with you as we confront this challenge together.

While we must continue the effort to assure undergraduate education of the highest quality, we cannot afford to ignore our mission in graduate education and research. Over the last several years, this faculty has demonstrated its competitiveness in attracting external funds to support that mission. Thus, between 1990 and 1994, the funds secured by faculty researchers rose from just over $7 million to more that $20 million. At the same time, the research and creative activity undertaken by the faculty without external support has blossomed. In my view, this record of accomplishment is truly extraordinary and confirms the commitment of the faculty to the mission of the University.

We know well that success in graduate education demands more than increased resources and exemplary publication, exhibition, or performance records. Graduate students require at least as much or more nurturing as undergraduate students, combined with a willingness to recognize that the student may have more innate ability than the mentor. The very special relationship between student and mentor explains the success of the American graduate university, and requires an extraordinary dedication from the faculty. Over the last few years -- for a variety of reasons largely beyond our control -- we have slighted this important part of our mission, with the result that graduate education has not received the attention it deserves. Consequently, the University now has the designation as a Doctoral II rather than a Doctoral I institution. I urge the faculty to consider the importance of reclaiming the Doctoral I designation this University enjoyed in earlier years and that more nearly suits its mission within the State.

It seems clear as well that the remarkable success of the faculty in research and creative activity has exposed problems that we must now resolve if we hope to continue the progress. In recognition of this situation, a special committee has prepared a report and a set of recommendations for our consideration as a community of scholars. In addition, a consultant visited the campus and submitted a report emphasizing the need to develop infrastructure -- facilities, services, and people -- in response to emergent needs. We must attend to the issues identified in these reports and recommendations during the next few months to make certain that we have resolved the problems. In making this statement, I do not mean to say that we have to accept all the recommendations and implement them without careful thought and full deliberation. Rather I want to emphasize the need to attend to the issues responsibly because of their critical importance.

This renewed focus upon curricular structure and the infrastructure needs of the University gives to us the opportunity to think together about the changing characteristics and needs of our students. Student demographics began to change during the last decade. All at once, or so it seemed, we discovered that we had a rather significant group of nontraditional students on the campus. By nontraditional, I refer to mature adults returning to college -- a majority of whom are female -- and to persons from diverse ethnic backgrounds. I think it clear that economic restructuring within the State will intensify this trend, and we need to prepare to respond to new and different needs.

The reorganization of the University System that brought the College of Technology into the University affords us new opportunities to respond. We must seize them. Adding to this diversity are the increasing numbers of students from other States, and the international students whose needs differ in many ways from those of domestic students, even as their presence on campus enriches the education that we offer to all students. One size no longer fits all, if indeed it ever did. We must respond to these divergent needs while also maintaining the high academic standards appropriate to a University. The responsible faculty committees and administrators have begun that deliberative process, but we have much yet to do.

Along with the task of responding to change, we must continue that which has occupied our attention during the last few years. We have made good progress, as the report of the recent accreditation team noted. The accreditation visit resulted in an unqualified affirmation of our institutional accreditation, an outcome we had hoped to achieve. As a result, every program on campus subject to accreditation, as well as the University itself, is fully accredited. We must keep it that way. While we have not solved all our problems, we have stabilized the situation so that we can focus our attention fully to achieve our desired objectives. I want to express my appreciation to the faculty and staff for their collective effort that assured our success in this regard.

During the coming months, we will have to deal with the disruptiveness caused by some of our successes as well. I refer, of course, to the construction occurring on campus that will interfere with our accustomed ways of doing things. As you know, we will construct the first new academic buildings on the campus since the early part of the last decade and the first new residence hall in more than two decades. In addition, we will renovate the University Center and Miller Hall, develop more parking, expand the intramural fields, increase family housing, and implement several projects designed to assure that all people have access to our facilities and programs. Welcome as these developments are, they will create a considerable amount of inconvenience for many people. We must bear with the temporary discomfort, knowing the benefits that will come over the longer term.

The Capital Campaign launched in October of 1993 continues to gain momentum. With a $40 million dollar goal over the five years ending in 1997, the Campaign has already attracted nearly $30 million in commitments. These generous contributions have made a difference in what we can do, and they will help even more in the future. We owe a great debt of gratitude to the faculty, staff, students, emeriti, alumni, and friends who have recognized the need and stepped forward to help. This University is truly blessed in that regard. During the next few months, the Campaign will enter its regional phase and we will need your continued assistance to inform potential donors of the programs and projects worthy of their support.

Another set of challenges will confront us during the year as the Governor and Legislature deal with the recommendations from the special task force charged by the Governor to reinvent State government. As many of you know, the Governor has recommended additional changes in the State's educational structure. Specifically, he has advocated the elimination of the Board of Regents, the Commissioner of Higher Education, and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, and the creation of a new cabinet officer responsible for all of education in the State. Any changes of this kind will require amending the Constitution, a lengthy process at best, and one fraught with uncertainty. Therefore, I think we are well advised to attend to the tasks at hand rather than preoccupy ourselves with some new governance structure that may or may not eventuate in the future.

A very imminent and special problem confronts us all in Montana at this time. If you looked around at the mountains as you walked across campus, you know what I mean. Fire threatens to consume much of a wonderful environment. As you know, many of our students currently serve on the fire line or will do so if the Governor finds it necessary to mobilize the National Guard. After consultation with the Deans and the Executive Committee of the Faculty Senate, I will notify the students involved in this critical work that we will hold their registrations and defer fee payment until 15 September. To delay their return any longer will create severe problems for the students. In addition, I ask the faculty to make special arrangements for these students to catch up in their courses when they return. We will have a list within the next couple of days to identify those involved. These students have assumed great risks to their well being to protect us and our environment. It seems appropriate that we reciprocate.

Finally, let me close with a request that each of us individually seek ways to enhance the sense of community on the campus. As one faculty member remarked during one of our discussions last year, diversity on campus does not necessarily result in harmony. In fact, diversity often has the effect of raising the levels of tension and restiveness because of the new voices added to those traditionally heard on the campus. The University of Montana has historically afforded a place and voice to all drawn to it to benefit from its culture and services. I believe that real and lasting community rests solidly upon respect for the beliefs and opinions of all rather than upon conformity to prescribed views. Let us strive together to maintain such a community.

Thank you very much for your effort and continued commitment. Have a good year!