State of the University 1996 - The University of Montana

George M. Dennison
The University of Montana

Missoula, Montana
30 August 1996

Good morning. Starting another year always stirs a good deal of excitement. No matter how harried we become during the waning days of spring, we're ready by fall for the challenge of working with outstanding students and making our individual contributions. I know that I speak for all my colleagues when I echo the warm welcome of the Provost to the newcomers in our midst. We think you have made a sound decision, one that you will come to appreciate even more as the years pass. You have joined an outstanding group of professionals committed to higher education, The University of Montana, the people it serves, and each other. More important, we believe your contributions will make a significant difference.

Today I have the pleasure of introducing four new members of the administrative team. Please welcome in absentia Professor Matthew Ames, our new Vice President for Research and Development--who could not attend today--Professor Mark Lusk, our new Director of International Programs, Professor Jack Nunberg, Director of the Biotechnology Center, and Dr. Gary Ratcliff, Director of the University Center. Dr. Ames comes to us from Mayo Clinic. He will visit periodically in the next few weeks to familiarize himself so that he can hit the ground running when he arrives permanently. Dr. Lusk, most recently from Boise State University, arrived on campus in mid-July after a short-term assignment in Kazahkstan. He has initiated a process to evaluate and develop a strategic plan for international programs. After a stint with Genentech, a private sector biotechnology firm, Dr. Nunberg came to campus in January to revitalize our Biotechnology Center. Dr. Ratcliff just completed his Ph.D. at Penn State, but he has a wealth of experience in student affairs and campus programming for students and faculty.

This morning I want to reflect a bit on the condition of The University of Montana-Missoula as we approach the 21st century. To do so, I draw upon my own perceptions after six exhilarating years. In my view, the faculty, staff, and administrators have effected a remarkable transformation of this institution within a relatively brief period of time. When I arrived on campus in August 1990, the University had just emerged from a retrenchment process that ultimately failed its intended purpose. Even after lopping off some well known programs and threatening others in an effort to protect its fiscal integrity, the University did not resolve the problems. With expenditures per student the lowest among peers in the country, faculty salaries dead last among all doctoral-granting, research-oriented institutions, staff salaries lagging private industry, and enrollments problematic at best, only true believers remained bullish about the future of the University. Funded research volume barely exceeded $7 million in FY 1990, and the effort to move the University into the technological age had not even begun. The facilities seemed more decrepit every year. Attempts to persuade the Legislature to fund a new Business Building had not succeeded despite the repetition of a powerful rationale every year since 1982. Across campus, people had circled the wagons and hunkered down in an effort to protect any remaining vestiges of the "good old days" and a glorious past.

Six years later, we can claim to have accomplished a great deal, even if we still have many items on our agenda. Expenditure levels have improved incrementally, with our operating budget nearly doubled. The increases came primarily from student contributions and entrepreneurial efforts, since State funds for FY 1997 exceed the FY 1990 total by slightly over $2 million in a budget of $130 million. In exchange for the students' larger contribution, they demanded improvement in the quality of education and related services, and guaranteed access to needed courses. Because of the student contribution, we have made some progress toward competitive salaries for the faculty, with the faculty in return accepting a mandate for increased productivity. That quid pro quo arrangement resulted from a collaborative process that has served us well, despite some nagging issues and rough periods. At the same time, enrollments have stabilized, with a discernible shift toward nonresidents, despite the rising cost of tuition. We will soon complete a successful capital campaign raising more money than ever before attempted in the State of Montana, thanks to the generosity of our friends and alumni. We have initiated some $100 million in construction projects, with several more in the offing. And our funded research has grown to more than $23 million in new awards annually. Finally, we have eliminated some obsolescent programs and also have added several new ones to respond to identified needs. Viewed from this perspective, the University appears healthy and vibrant.

Nonetheless, despite or perhaps because of these accomplishments, both anecdotal and systematic evidence suggests that morale on campus has reached a seriously low level. In the visits I schedule each year with the faculty and staff in their Departments and offices, I have direct evidence in personal comments. In addition, the report issued by the Quality of Worklife Task Force I appointed a year ago to study our work environment corroborates this conclusion. Under the leadership of Kathy Crego, Director of Human Resource Services, the Task Force conducted focus groups, interviewed a diverse array of people, read much of the published literature on the ways other universities have dealt with the problems, and reviewed several studies done on this campus over the last few years by the Faculty and Staff Senates and other agencies. I will not discuss all the findings today, but will highlight those that received the most comment. The Task Force also reported that conditions are improving, and the faculty and staff told me the same. While I will focus on the challenges still before us this morning, I want to emphasize the remarkable progress made possible by the commitment of the faculty, staff, and administrators. For the coming year, I have initiated a process to deal with the Task Force findings and to find new ways to recognize and reward those responsible for the progress we have made and will make in the future.

To begin, faculty, staff, and administrators feel overworked, under-valued, and powerless. The staff feel especially so because of spotty progress toward competitive salaries. The faculty has become more productive in teaching, research, and service, but faculty numbers, although up, have not kept pace with the demands, thereby jeopardizing our commitment to assure quality as well as access. Moreover, the faculty point out that we have increased productivity in terms of time in the classroom, but we have not really focused on the quality of the academic experience of students. We have raised our library acquisition budget significantly, but we have not provided the staff to get materials quickly into the hands of faculty and students. While we have begun to build up an equipment budget and have made progress toward providing computers for all faculty members, the equipment budget remains small and the staff has not benefitted from the computer acquisition plan. As promised in the collaborative agreement two years ago, we have reduced administrative costs and moved savings into the instructional budget, with a resultant increase in workload for the remaining administrators. While some facilities--typically those capable of generating revenue to retire bonded indebtedness--have received the attention they need, our academic facilities have not fared as well. With the exception of the new academic buildings--one funded partially by the State and the other completely by private donations--the classrooms and laboratories have remained virtually untouched for some 20 or 30 years, except for the corrosive and unchecked effects of time and heavy use. We have yet to respond fully to the needs of the staff for equipment, training, and professional development to empower them to seize control of the flow and scope of tasks in the work environment.

It appears as well from the report that our communication processes do not function well. As the Task Force reminded us, communication is an interactive process for sending and receiving messages, a process that requires active participants. Speaking or writing has no effect unless someone listens or reads. That caveat aside, the Task Force heard complaints from across campus about decisions taken apparently without consultation. Faculty, staff, and administrators claim to learn of decisions and the implementing actions only as they feel the effects, with no advance notice or warning. Predictably, the unintended consequences of well intentioned initiatives bring additional work but little if any financial savings or improved effectiveness, in large part because of the failure even to secure the informed counsel of those directly involved. Even though we have committed ourselves to consultation, it apparently does not happen, at least not to the extent we deem essential.

In addition, the faculty, staff, and administrators claim that they must do ever more but do not have the means to accomplish the desired objectives. Hence even the best planned projects encounter resistance, require additional effort, or sometimes abort altogether. As an example, the near completion of the project to wire the campus has not produced the anticipated benefits because the staff responsible for carrying the University into the information age has, for the most part, had to work with obsolete and dysfunctional equipment, and even too little of that. Moreover, many Departments and offices do not have the resources to cover initial connections, without considering ongoing operational costs. This new technology has the capability to improve our communication and other processes significantly, but unleashing that potential requires adequate staff, resources, and infrastructure.

In a similar vein, while most people prefer to work smarter rather than harder, they cannot do so without the necessary equipment, training, and professional development programs. The faculty and staff cannot remain current in their fields because of busy schedules and lack of support. Too often supervisors rely upon the authority to direct staff rather than using their knowledge and skills to serve as facilitators and leaders in their areas of responsibility. We will always have to deal with resource constraints. However, we will handle them better if we find ways to involve people in resolving them.

Finally, the advent of distributed decision making and responsibility has culminated in more work for people with virtually no relief from the bureaucratic constraints interfering with efficient and effective functioning. The restructuring of the Montana University System generated significant workload increases on the campuses with no recognition in additional staff or compensation. In a similar vein, faculty, staff, and administrators alike described to the Task Force the rapid dispersion of work and responsibility across the campus without an accompanying redistribution of the authority to act on discretion. They cited examples in various areas, including budgeting, budget controls, support for computing services, personnel management, and program administration in general. While the work moves to the lowest organizational level, and thus closest to the action where people have the knowledge essential to sound decisions, decisional authority appears to remain at some higher level. The resource problems, certainly real and persistent, derive their urgency and immediacy from this dysfunctional arrangement.

As the report and the observations of faculty, staff, and administrators make clear, the miasma of change has become so pervasive that it now affects our perceptions of everything on campus. Some of us tend to resist change because of a natural nervousness about the unknown, preferring known problems to those as yet unimagined. On the other hand, for some people the advent of change engenders high expectations, often beyond the capacity of the University to fulfill. Thus, when the inevitable occurs and the resource base however improved fails to measure up to expectations, widespread disillusionment and disaffection ensue. It often seems to the members of both groups that some deliberate scheme or plot alone can explain what has happened. That perception causes more and more people to question the proposals designed to address the problems and to doubt the motives of those who develop the proposals. Given these perceptions and attitudes, it matters less that we have accomplished a great deal than that instability, uncertainty, and inadequate information deprive people of the motivation to help invent a better future.

In my view, the advent of distributed processes in response to changing conditions goes far to explain our situation. Without fully realizing or preparing for it, we have entered into a new era, one that requires all our thought about the appropriate means to respond. As Bob Zemsky--our institutional facilitator in the Higher Education Round Tables--argued in a recent article, emergent conditions will inevitably require higher education to alter its way of functioning just as every other institution has to do. We must redesign our decisional and work processes to take account of the radical decentralization not only made possible by information technology but mandated by conditions today. We simply do not have the resources to continue the old ways of centralized control and monitoring of all functions, even if we wanted to give new life to this compulsive but dysfunctional behavior. Taking a page from the private sector, we must reconceptualize our processes and redistribute not only the responsibility but the discretion to act, no easy tasks to accomplish.

To that end, we must develop, articulate, and share a vision of a different way of functioning within the University. We caught a glimpse of the new reality in the review of administrative functions completed in January. Based upon that review, we recommended several radical departures from business as usual within the Montana University System. For the most part, those recommendations looked toward even more decentralization of function, authority, responsibility, and discretion to act. While we may not get everything we wanted, we will make progress toward a more responsive way of doing business.

Let me cite one or two examples. We urged a complete withdrawal from the State personnel system and the creation of a human resource system unique to higher education. The State responded by delegating the classification review authority to the two Universities. This will provide flexibility in dealing with staff assignments and classification of positions. However, that delegation alone will not resolve the staff salary problems. It will, however, impose additional work on an already stressed Human Resources staff. The same will happen in purchasing and other areas. As we gain the flexibility to operate more effectively and efficiently, we must accept new burdens and increased accountability.

The collaborative effort that produced the bargaining agreement with the faculty offers still one more example. Rather than settle for the traditional practice of negotiating adversarially to a solution that satisfies no one but represents the least common denominator, we sought to find ways to satisfy all the stakeholders--faculty, administration, students, Regents, Legislature, Governor, and public. Most importantly, the new approach recognized the responsibility of the parties to act in good faith to fulfill their commitments. Our recent mediation efforts to resolve some complex issues that surfaced during implementation demonstrates the persistence and depth of the commitment. But we have not yet gotten beyond the technical aspects of monitoring the agreement. In my view, the agreement speaks directly to our concerns about the quality of the academic experience of students in most of its provisions. Unless we find ways to address these concerns as we attend to the more mundane monitoring provisions, we will never achieve the intended benefits for the University and its students.

As we proceed deeper into this uncharted terrain of distributed processes and decision making, it will not suffice simply to say that those closest to the action must decide and initiate the action. We must make certain that each of us understands and actually shares a common vision of the processes involved and the intended outcomes. We need not know all the minute details in advance, since trying to do so will bring a halt to all activity. We must, however, have general agreement about the most promising processes and desired outcomes. Otherwise, as a friend once put it, we may find ourselves in the plight of the group of people planning a trip who failed to agree on which train to catch. As a result, some arrived in San Francisco while others made it to Atlanta. We must make certain that we all know where we intend to go and the general direction of travel, even if we get there by various transport modes and at different times. We must find ways to assure broad understanding and acceptance of a common vision based upon perceived and valued involvement in the decisional processes.

I think we share a broad consensus about the fundamentals, but we have not always listened fully to mutual concerns and worked together to demystify the change process. While some may wish to hold back the tide, most people understand the need to take stock and reach decisions about strategies likely to assist us in our common endeavor. The willingness of people to pitch in and help during the last six years underscores that assertion. People will also demand information about the intentions, likely consequences, and reasons for any action taken. They will expect to have their views considered in the decisional process, and well they should. We will do much better if we have this kind of involvement.

How do we accomplish that goal? I think we begin by involving all who wish to participate in a campus-wide dialogue designed to inform the participants about the choices before us. Sometimes we may find the choices made for us, but that, too, deserves wider recognition. Then we must equip the faculty and staff to actualize those choices. Over the course of the coming year, we will begin that informational process. We will do so by conducting discussions, seminars, workshops, forums, and "town meetings" to enable us to understand what we must do together. As we do so, we must recognize that resource scarcity will inevitably persist. We simply do not have the wherewithal to make it go away in the short term. But we can address it incrementally, assuring that the most pressing institutional needs come first, specifically those that unmet prevent us from making any progress. By finding ways to release the creative energies of the faculty, staff, and administrators, we will help ourselves to attract the resources required to accomplish our goals.

If we ignore several other specific challenges before us, we do so at our peril. First, we have worked hard to improve the appearance of the campus and to assure that we make a good impression upon the prospective students. I do not mean to suggest that we have done all that we need in this regard, for we can always do better. I do suggest that we must now focus attention upon the academic experience of the students who enroll. While appearances help to attract students, and excellent service helps to retain them to graduation, the substance of the education we provide brings them here in the first place and helps them to achieve their goals. Increased faculty productivity and resource enrichment will not assure our success. We must also make certain that students understand and respect their responsibilities as productive learners. Unless we attend closely to these central concerns, I submit that we will not fulfill our collective responsibility to the people of Montana and the students. If we do so, we can convince the policy makers--Governor, legislators, and public--that we have maintained quality while enhancing access and increasing productivity. In addition, we will have the evidence to demonstrate to students and their families that we have contained costs in order to assure access, but not at the expense of quality.

Second, I personally believe that we must educate the people of Montana about the merits of the constitutional arrangements for the governance of the Montana University System. Even if we complain from time to time about the Regents, and find ourselves in disagreement with some of their decisions, I think that a review of history proves conclusively that the current arrangement offers the best hope for an outstanding higher educational system in Montana. We have reduced bureaucracy, increased efficiency, and enhanced effectiveness under the current system. To eliminate the Regents now will undermine our progress in recent years and restore the conditions Montanans decided to change once and for all some 20 years ago.

Third, I urge that sooner rather than later we reach agreement about the most appropriate way to organize our campus functions and offices so as to provide the best possible services to enrolled and prospective students. I trust that you have reviewed the proposal to create a Vice President for Student and Enrollment Services the better to serve students who carry an increasing share of the cost of their education. I have urged restructuring of some kind not for convenience but for survival. When not if we reach consensus on some proposal, we will still face the challenge of breaking down the walls that have for too long separated academic and student affairs. To thrive in the next century, we must integrate rather than segregate people and functions.

Fourth, we must move forward energetically to provide the infrastructure--by which I refer to policies, people, and facilities--to guarantee the further development of our research and graduate education programs. We must and will reclaim the Doctoral I classification we lost two years ago. Provost Kindrick and Vice President Ames have dedicated themselves to this goal in the next three years, but they cannot achieve it alone. We will need the total involvement of the faculty, administration, staff, and students to assure the fulfillment of the mission of the University in research and graduate education.

Fifth, I strongly urge revision of the General Education Program as initiated by the Provost under the leadership of Dean James Kriley of the School of Fine Arts. The new Regental policy on General Education--stipulating that the student who satisfies a General Education Program requirement consisting of at least 30 lower division credits at any one of the State-supported institutions in Montana will satisfy the General Education Program requirements on all campuses--makes it mandatory that we move with dispatch. As we do so, the direction Dean Kriley has charted toward a definition of desired outcomes rather than designated courses and credits seems highly appropriate. As the discussion identifies the intended outcomes, I ask that we consider the following attributes, defined so that we can assess them: 1) A strong sense of ethical responsibility for oneself and one's community; 2) an informed awareness of the value and benefits of community involvement and service; and 3) a critical understanding of the demands of citizenship in the global community. In addition to educating people for meaningful and productive lives, we must prepare them for the world they will experience in the 21st rather than the 20th century. We must help our students to develop the skills, insights, habits, and attitudes conducive to a decent society. In that regard, I continue to believe that residence in another society and exposure to another culture enhances the relevance and quality of the education.

Finally, in my view, we must identify a revenue stream to enable us to renovate and equip our classrooms and laboratories. To that end, I will initiate discussion with the students of an Academic Facilities Fee for nonresidents of approximately $200 per year beginning in FY 1998, with the revenue dedicated to improving classrooms and laboratories. The restriction to nonresidents recognizes that residents and their families contributed to the cost of constructing these facilities originally while nonresidents did not. If approved, the Fee will generate some $7 million and we will ask the State for a matching amount. If we succeed in this effort, we will make a profound difference in the quality of the education we provide.

Quite clearly, we have a full agenda. Based upon my experience to date, I have great confidence in your capacity to respond to the challenge. More importantly, I look forward to working closely with you as we seek together to assure that The University of Montana-Missoula realizes its full potential. That requires no more than that each of us seeks to realize our full potential. For every University is its faculty and staff, and its achievements are those of its faculty and staff.

Thank you very much for all that you do. I wish you great success during the coming year and pledge to do all that I can to assist you in your endeavors.