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Under the M: Some UM faces, the regents, more on housing, reading a book

KEILA SZPALLER keila.szpaller@missoulian.com​ ​ ​

If you want to get to know a University of Montana employee who is also one of the newest members of the Missoula County Public Schools Board of Trustees, check out reporter Cameron Evans' profile of Wilena Old Person.

Old Person is currently program coordinator for the Health Careers Opportunity Program at the College of Health Professions and Biomedical Sciences. A nonprofit leader familiar with her work said this in the story:

Wilena just has this natural ability to lead with grace and collaboration and wisdom and vision,” said Heidi Wallace, the executive director of Empower MT, an organization that develops youth and adult leaders to correct systemic inequalities.

In the story, Evans describes all the different volunteer jobs Old Person has done:

She has volunteered for numerous positions over the years, having served as a member and the co-chair of the Diversity Advisory Council at UM, a member of the UM Presidential Search Committee in 2017, a member of the DiverseU Planning Committee, a member of the Board of Directors at Empower MT, a member of the Board of Directors, the Chair and the Secretary of the Missoula Urban Indian Health Center, and as an adviser for the Kyiyo Native American Student Association since 2011 — and that’s not even half of the positions she’s held in the last 10 years, in addition to her full-time job.

If that piece only whetted your appetite for more news about UM people, here's my story about faculty member Alex Metcalf, who is doing some interesting research on weeds (seriously!) and the best ways to manage them using human behavior as a driver.

Last week, the Montana Board of Regents met, and there were some interesting discussions about performance funding and also what costs should be paid for and included in public education. Performance funding is that portion of money tied to how well a campus is achieving goals such as retention and graduation, and Montana State University-Billings isn't getting any of the $1.4 million for which it's eligible because it's missed the marks.

Regent Martha Sheehy said she's become convinced the tactic only punishes students; MSU-Billings is working really hard to improve, she said, and it's getting dinged nonetheless. But other regents noted the approach is important to the Montana Legislature, the people who actually dole out the funds, and Commissioner Clayton Christian said it points the Montana University System to areas that need improvement. If they talk about whether to adjust the model, we'll listen and see where they land.

Sheehy also raised another interesting point. The regents were considering fee increases and additions, and she wondered if some of the items being paid for with fees should just be a standard part of a public education. It felt like a timely question given the higher education landscape, with $600 textbooks, hefty student debt, increasing salaries for administrators, and student homelessness.

Speaking of homes, reporters David Erickson and Eve Byron have been covering housing and real estate costs in Missoula as part of, respectively, the business and local government beats. Today, Erickson had this story about a new plan to bring more than 200 affordable units to the Garden City. From the story:

More than 200 new affordable housing units are coming to Missoula and will be available to those who make far less than the median income, thanks to a recently formed plan and partnership between the city, county and multiple nonprofits.

Essentially, the county is committing to donating an 4-acre parcel near the Missoula County Detention Facility to a coalition of nonprofit entities for construction of a 130-unit housing complex. Of those, 30 units will be reserved as permanent supportive housing for people experiencing chronic homelessness. A 24-hour navigation center will be built to support people with high barriers to housing, including those re-entering the community from the criminal justice system.

Predictably, some people were cranky about the idea. But I wanted to mention it here. First, I had linked last week to a story about the new affordable housing policy and also mentioned that friends of friends were talking about moving to Butte because of housing costs.

Well, another person mentioned the Butte migration to me, and it may be a trend. So it's important to highlight the things happening in Missoula that might keep people here. Also, when you're reading a lot about house plans and house policies, it's good to read about actual houses.

What else? Oh, I'll share more with you about Montana Project 10 in the future. It's a new initiative to help lower-income students stay in school, and I'm looking forward to learning more about it. The regents heard an update last week, and deputy commissioner of smart things Brock Tessman is going to talk more about it with me this summer. UM is part of the pilot, which is good because the Missoula flagship enrolls a lot of disadvantaged students.

Also, if you're looking for the latest on enrollment, here's my story with a brief update from across the system and some particulars with UM. It's not all roses locally, but you'll see some glimmers of good news too. From the story:

The University of Montana's struggle with enrollment decline is acute, but the campus isn't alone in facing drops.

On the other hand, the growth at Montana State University-Bozeman is bucking a national downward trend in undergraduates going to college.

Last week, the Montana Board of Regents heard an update on enrollment across the Montana University System, and overall numbers have slipped since 2011 from 40,961 to a projected 36,364 for the 2019 fiscal year.

The healthy upward trajectory in Bozeman is an exception.

At MSU, enrollment has grown 29% since 2011, according to data from the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.

We've talked some about online education, and here's a fun departure. The Chronicle had this piece by a faculty member who had assigned students to read a physical book as extra credit.

This simple assignment was illuminating. Many students had not read a physical book since at least middle school. 

What are you reading that can be dropped in the tub and mostly survive? Believe it or not, I had never read "1984," so I picked up a copy earlier this year at Powell's City of Books in Portland. I'm almost done with it and have circled lots of new words, not the case in most of the more recently published books I've read.

Also, if you want a good place to read your book or e-reader or newspaper(!) while having a leisurely meal some late Sunday morning, reporter Peter Friesen is in the middle of writing a "Missoula brunch extravaganza." Stay tuned for recommendations from Gild, Draught Works, and Western Cider.

Straight from UM:

Thanks for reading.

— Keila Szpaller

Stay current on the University of Montana and other higher education news in Montana with the Missoulian's weekly email, Under the M. This newsletter will land in your email box on Tuesdays. Got a news tip? Want to hear more about something at UM? Missoula College? The Commissioner's Office? Shoot a note to keila.szpaller@missoulian.com. Thank you for reading, and please sign up here if you'd like to subscribe. 

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