The vice president for student affairs at the University of Montana will leave her post in early 2016, and the new job title will change to include enrollment management, according to a letter sent Thursday by UM President Royce Engstrom.
Vice President Teresa Branch began her tenure at UM in June 2003. She will step down as vice president in January and work on special projects for the president, and she will fully retire June 30, 2016, said the letter Engstrom emailed to the campus community.
"Effective immediately, we will begin the search for a new vice president for enrollment management and student affairs with the core focus on student recruitment, retention, and success, and with strong support from the leaders in the president's Cabinet," Engstrom said.
In a telephone conversation, Branch said she is looking forward to the remainder of her time at UM. She said the time is right for a new vice president, and she wanted to give the president adequate lead time to select a replacement, especially given the campus' focus on enrollment.
"At this stage of the game, I've had a long, wonderful career, and I don't want to leave my friends and colleagues behind, but it's just time for me to move on," Branch said.
The announcement that the new vice president will focus on enrollment comes at a time UM is struggling to recruit students. This fall, it announced another drop in student numbers, a 4.3 percent decrease compared to the fall of 2014.
Peggy Kuhr, vice president for integrated communications, said when a UM official announces a departure, the supervisor evaluates the position and modifies the job as needed. In this case, the president wants to strengthen recruitment.
"It really reflects the president's need to have Cabinet-level expertise in enrollment management, and as he mentioned and we know, enrollment management is one of our challenges," Kuhr said.
On Thursday, Engstrom and ASUM President Cody Meixner offered high praise for Branch, whose career in student affairs spanned 40 years and included time at the University of Washington, Arizona State University, Iowa State University and UM.
Branch works hard to ensure students feel welcomed at UM, and she did so as the head of Student Affairs and also as a direct mentor to students, Meixner said. He said he hopes the next vice president has similar attributes.
"Right away, I think having someone that has the care that she does for the students and the engagement and the passion for making students of diverse backgrounds feel welcome on campus is really necessary," Meixner said.
At UM, students aren't only learning, they're living, playing and working, he said. He said Branch understands the many different levels of interactions students have with UM, in addition to the academic one.
"In my work with her, she's always been nothing but incredibly supportive and just generally kind," Meixner said. "I'm definitely going to miss her."
In his letter, Engstrom noted a long list of accomplishments by Branch at UM:
- She began DiverseU, an annual symposium on diversity.
- She started WelcomeFEAST, a display of resources and a shindig on the oval for incoming students.
- She strengthened UM's work with Native American students, veterans and students with disabilities.
- She oversaw "top quality" services including Dining Services, Residence Life, the University Center, Curry Health Center, and Campus Recreation.
"In her 13 years at the University of Montana, Dr. Branch has made tremendous contributions to the University and the quality of student life on our campus," Engstrom said.
Early on, Branch said she recognized the need for events such as WelcomeFEAST and DiverseU as important ways to reach out to students.
The WelcomeFEAST is a party with a purpose in the fall, an opportunity for UM to showcase student services and also provide a picnic lunch for students and some live music.
"That allows people to enjoy each other, to be visible, to be outside, to be around the Oval as they take in entertainment, as they learn more about the resources that are available should they need any help at the university," Branch said. "And besides the entertainment and the food, they have each other."
DiverseU is a symposium designed to raise the profile of all the diverse aspects of the student body, whether students are gay or of different ethnicities, she said. In fact, she said differences manifest themselves in a variety of ways, and the presentations and discussions foster understanding.
"It's important for people to feel their issues are taken seriously and they can fit in in some way, shape or form. If they don't feel that way, the vast majority are not going to stay."
This year for the first time, DiverseU is running two days instead of just one, she said.
"It's important for the university to reach out to everybody so that people have a way of making a connection and feeling that they can fit into this institution," Branch said.
In the budget crunch last school year, the finance team asked Student Affairs to contribute $3.2 million of its savings to shore up the bottom line. At the time, Branch said the money had been set aside over many years for building maintenance and capital improvements.
On Thursday, she said the use of Student Affairs money doesn't indicate a lack of support for Student Affairs at UM, and it didn't contribute to her decision to leave. Rather, she said Student Affairs is part of a team, and it has a responsibility to do what it can to help.
"I'm hoping that the enrollment itself will turn around and that we'll be able to garner larger numbers of students that choose to come to the university," Branch said.
In the meantime, the enrollment slip has created difficult choices for UM officials, and Meixner said he anticipates the next vice president will face similar budgetary challenges.
"I don't envy the person who gets her job because it's probably one of the hardest on campus," he said.