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University of Montana President Royce Engstrom

TOM BAUER/Missoulian

When historians look back on the University of Montana and the 2012-13 academic year, they may pause and give the chapter added weight. A year cloaked in scandal and change, it saw a dizzying series of investigations, firings, hirings and doubt.

But for every difficult moment in history comes an enlightenment. The university that appeared down and out just last year has weathered the storm, and is looking to re-establish its presence and emerge stronger than ever.

Ask UM President Royce Engstrom and he will say the time has come to move forward. The question now is how?

“We’ve had difficult times to be sure, but the underlying quality and values behind the University of Montana have helped guide us through this,” Engstrom said. “Now we can get back full time to the business of building a great institution.”

Little more than a year ago, the University of Montana was facing a litany of challenges and unknowns. Engstrom had dismissed several members of the administration he inherited from his predecessor, George Dennison, including key members of the athletics program.

The university had no head football coach, no athletics director, no provost and no communications boss. It had no permanent figure driving research and creative scholarship, no long-term hire to oversee administration and finance.

The departments of Justice and Education were investigating the school. The NCAA was looking into misdoings of the Grizzly football program, along with local boosters. Enrollment was in decline, and, to make matters worse, the 2013 legislative session was rapidly approaching and funding was at stake.

In his office last week, Engstrom considered the past year and admitted it has been long and arduous. But the slate is now clean and the future, he believes, is filled with possibility.

“Every president gets confronted with challenges on his or her respective campus, and we’ve had more than our fair share,” Engstrom said. “But we kept the long-term view of the university in mind, knowing it’s a strong university with a great deal of pride. Now I want to focus on what we’re about at UM in the broadest sense.”

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What the University of Montana is about hasn’t changed, though its message got lost in the headlines. Engstrom takes up the school’s long-range plan and says it’s time to start building a university for the “global century.”

It’s a term he used last fall during his state of the university address, and despite the challenges of last year, the mission hasn’t changed. It hinges on scholarships, growing student success and a global education. It looks to create a dynamic learning environment and boost research and creative ideas.

“We have the opportunity and responsibility to grow in that regard, particularly in today’s economy, where jobs and economic development are increasingly dependent upon ideas,” Engstrom said.

Research and creativity will drive the university forward, and it’s a key part of Engstrom’s vision of the future. The school has made progress already this year, landing new and unique research grants.

Last month alone, UM received a $1.1 million NASA grant to help scout for distant planets, and a $5 million award from the Center for Biomedical Research Excellence to study cardio and pulmonary diseases.

“We need to make sure our research portfolio continues to expand with exciting projects,” Engstrom said. “We need to maximize the impact of that on Montana and on the world.”

There’s an economic factor also at play, and the university will continue pushing creativity into the private sector. Engstrom calls them technology transfers – ideas born on campus that find incubator funding and, hopefully, grow into stand-alone businesses providing jobs and new opportunity.

Last year, UM invested $3.5 million into MonTech, helping new startups take root, including Rivertop Renewables, AIM GeoAnalytics and Mobile Minds, among others. More recently, the Blackstone Charitable Foundation provided $2 million to introduce entrepreneurship as a career option at UM, and to help students build viable companies.

“Tech transfers are increasingly important,” Engstrom said. “It’s an important part of making sure ideas from the university get transferred into the private sector – that we’re full partners in Missoula and Montana’s economic activities.”

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Before the academic year began in 2012, Engstrom was looking to appoint new staff members to his Cabinet, including a new provost and reshaping old positions he believed were needed to help the university move forward.

The university’s message was getting drowned out by scandals surrounding sexual assault and three investigations, one of them into the school’s football program. With all that now over, Engstrom wants to focus on its message.

“In the last couple years, there’s been a lot of competition for the message,” Engstrom said. “We need to be as deliberate and strategic as we can when going forward, crafting our message and delivering it in an effective way. Frankly, we have a lot of work to do in that area, but we have the opportunity to really focus on that now.”

The new and revamped administrative positions are designed to help achieve that goal. They include the vice president of integrated communications, a position held by Peggy Kuhr – the former dean of the School of Journalism – and the assistant vice president of marketing, a new position held by Mario Schulzke.

The two jobs have been criticized by some vocal faculty members as a model of administrative bloat. But Engstrom believes they’re needed to help deliver the university’s message and improve communications on a wider scale.

“We have a whole new leadership team in place,” Engstrom said. “They’re all outstanding choices and they’re working well together as a team, generating new ideas and improving communication in all aspects of the campus.”

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Despite the forward momentum, the school will face lingering challenges this year. Enrollment numbers are expected to fall by 700 additional students, and the budget must be adjusted moving forward, leaving some course offerings in doubt.

Engstrom said his new administration is taking aggressive steps to reverse the decline and begin rebuilding. The competition for new students is as fierce as it has ever been.

“We’re taking three major steps to address that,” Engstrom said. “They’re indicative of what the competition is out there, whether it’s Montana State University or the surrounding states.”

Engstrom said UM is working to improve its marketing, and it’s investing in a recruiting company to increase the “quality and quantity” of contact the school has with prospective students.

It’s also conducting a financial aid review. Engstrom said it will ensure the university is offering tuition waivers and scholarships in a manner that’s beneficial to both students and the institution.

“We haven’t conducted a review like that in some time,” Engstrom said. “It will help ensure we’re using our precious resources in the most strategic way.”

In five years, Engstrom sees the school “on a very exciting trajectory.” UM already boasts the highest student retention rates in the Montana University System, and he only sees that improving.

Research will play a greater role, he added, and scholarship productivity will increase.

“I think we’ll continue to grow as the institution of choice for students who want an education that prepares them for today’s world,” he said. “We’ll have great new facilities that grow and enhance opportunities for our students and faculty.”

As for this year, the university will look to implement several building projects now funded and approved, including a new Missoula College, an academic center for student athletes and a new center for executive education.

Engstrom said the projects will “start blooming one by one” over this academic year. He also has high hopes for Grizzly athletics.

“We’re looking forward to a very strong season in terms of athletics,” he said. “It’s a critical part of UM, and it’s an important and exciting part. This is a wonderful place to get an education. It’s one of the best campuses in America when you combine all the attributes UM has.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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