Montana Board of Regents file

A file photo from the Montana University System Board of Regents' September 2018 meeting in Billings.

The Montana Board of Regents lent support Thursday to Gov. Steve Bullock's goal to boost the number of Montanans with higher education, and also approved a tuition freeze for the next two academic years.

In 2013, Bullock announced the goal to increase the number of Montanans with a certificate or degree from 40% to 60% by 2025. However, Siri Smillie, education policy adviser for the governor, said the target had not been diligently tracked.

She said Montana has moved the dial to 44%, and the governor's Future Ready Cabinet overseeing the strategy has adjusted the goal to 61% to ensure the state can meet its workforce needs, and planned to improve consistent tracking. She requested the regents affirm the effort, and they did so.

Commissioner Clayton Christian praised the way the governor, a Democrat, has approached the effort. Christian said in many states, politicians simply announce such goals, but in Montana, leaders put thought and outreach into the initiative. 

Regent Casey Lozar said the effort holds promise for Montana and will contribute to the economy in the next decade and beyond. He also said it's good to see the synergy among agencies such as the governor's office, Montana Department of Labor and Industry, and Montana University System.

"Certainly, this is a great opportunity for us to look beyond our roles as regents and look at the different sorts of leaders and the different groups around the state of Montana who all have the same goal of making sure our workforce is ready," Lozar said.

At the meeting, the regents also approved tuition for the next two years, including a freeze for resident undergraduates, and they allocated state appropriations for the biennium, with $29.2 million going to campuses. They approved new fees and some increases, including one aimed at augmenting tutoring and advising at the University of Montana.

One day earlier, Regent Martha Sheehy said some of the fees appeared to pay for items she believes should be supported as part of a basic 21st century college education. Thursday, Lozar said a fee task force had done much work on the topic, but the conversation will continue.

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"We still need to continue to do work assessing the fees in the system, their usage, and how they come before the board," Lozar said.

The board also approved performance funding, which allocates some money to campuses based on their achievements in graduation and retention. Sheehy opposed the item.

Montana State University–Billings was eligible for $1.4 million, but it will receive none of those dollars, and Sheehy said it had received less than its full eligibility in the past as well. She said the board, Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education and the flagship should take responsibility for the failings of the campus instead of being punitive.

"I've just become convinced that the only people we're punishing here are students," Sheehy said.

She said she has reconsidered the benefit of the funding model, and she would like the board to reevaluate it sooner rather than later.

In other business, the regents also did the following at their meeting this Wednesday and Thursday:

  • Heard an update on an undertaking to make it easy for students to transfer among the public campuses. According to a presentation to the board, one in six students will transfer, and "Common Course Numbering" facilitates the movement of 50,000 course credits each year. Provost Bob Mokwa from Montana State University was among the higher education officials who praised the effort: "This is a tremendous story."
  • Approved a new associate of applied science degree for a paramedicine program at Missoula College. A partnership with Missoula Emergency Services Inc., the program will start in the fall for a "high-demand occupation," according to a news release from UM.
  • Received a report on a pilot project called Montana Project 10 to implement in Montana best practices shown to help lower-income students stay in school. The new program will be piloted at UM, Helena College and MSU-Billings, and will be rolled out to 300 Pell-eligible resident students.
  • Celebrated the election of Jim Elser, director of UM's Flathead Lake Biological Station, to the National Academy of Sciences, and selection of UM faculty member Megan Stark as Administrator of the Year by the Associated Students of the University of Montana.
  • Heard Commissioner Clayton Christian's plan to request campuses review their free speech policies over the next 12 months. He said his office supported the veto of House Bill 735 not to oppose free speech but because the bill encroached on the authority of the regents and started to manage campuses "from a legislative seat." He said he sees free speech as the basis of academic freedom and the university system will embrace the ideal regardless of whether that bill is law.
  • Heard pushback from MSU faculty, students and former students on the administration’s plan to merge the department of cell biology and neuroscience with microbiology and immunology. 
  • Elected Lozar as the next chair of the board and Regent Paul Tuss as vice chair.

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