The Montana Board of Regents had praise all around for the historic, $24 million gift from the Franke family to the University of Montana – and for the transparency around it.
Regent Martha Sheehy, who raised questions about the lack of transparency around an earlier naming gift, thanked the Bill and Carolyn Franke family for their donation and thanked UM President Royce Engstrom for the open process.
"It's been very well handled and easy and transparent to review," Sheehy said.
The gift will go to the College of Forestry and Conservation and the Global Leadership Initiative after formal approval by the regents on Friday.
However, the regents offered positive remarks Thursday for the gift from airline company magnate Bill Franke and his family. Regent Bob Nystuen said he's wanted these major donations to be points of celebration, not controversy, and this time around, he said, "I think we got it."
"Their gift will live in perpetuity from a standpoint of what it will do for students and the faculty and the entire university," Nystuen said.
Engstrom said the gift is special because none of the family members are alums, but UM established a relationship with them nonetheless. He praised in particular Kate Jennings from the UM Foundation for her work with the family over the years.
UM and the Frankes began a relationship six or seven years ago, he said. The family has a summer home in Bigfork, and they have brought speakers from UM to talk with their guests.
"They've been tremendous business people, and they have been tremendously generous," Engstrom said.
At the meeting, the regents also heard a presentation about financial aid in Montana and how much of it is getting to the students who need it.
Tyler Trevor, deputy commissioner of planning and analysis for the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, said the state gives out a lot of financial aid, but it does not do so strategically.
Montana had $132 million in financial aid, not counting loans, for the 2015 and 2016 school years, Trevor said. The federal Pell Grant accounts for 40 percent of that money.
However, the Montana University System has control over roughly 31 percent of it and can influence some of the remaining 29 percent. And the state trails in the amount of money it contributes to need-based aid at $90 per student; the national average is $539.
In the U.S., 70 percent of first-time, full-time resident students receive $5,589 in aid, Trevor said. In Montana, by comparison, 83 percent of those students get $4,300 in aid.
Tuition freezes have kept part of the cost of education low, but costs such as room and board and supplies are still going up, he said.
In fact, Montana State University President Waded Cruzado of Bozeman said some students have to choose between eating meals and buying textbooks. She said the cost of one textbook alone can hit $600.
"It's totally out of control," said Cruzado.
Regent Bill Johnstone said the presentation raises a question: "Do we have a problem that needs to be addressed? Do we have a need-based support problem or not?"
In response, Commissioner Clayton Christian said he doesn't want to understate the problem for students that are struggling, but the truth is the state has done much for higher education.
"As a system, I think we have addressed that problem in many ways of keeping tuition as affordable as we can," Christian said.
After lunch, Engstrom and other UM officials took an estimated 20 people on a tour of the campus, highlighting infrastructure needs and successes.
A few years ago, the Montana Legislature helped the Clapp Building fix its asbestos problem in part of the structure, said Kevin Krebsbach, facilities director. But the building, which serves 1,800 students a semester, still has three floors that need asbestos abatement.
"It's safe now the way it is, but it's a ticking time bomb for us," Krebsbach said.
The group also visited the Payne Family Native American Center, one of the newest buildings on campus. Chris Comer, dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences, said the building was constructed with the highest sustainability standards, and one of the larch trees that used to grow on the site remains part of the center.
"This floor is largely made out of wood that came from that tree," Comer said.
The center honors Native Americans and their traditions in Montana, and it also offers modern education with new tools, such as a tribal GIS mapping program.
At the Liberal Arts Building, the guests peeked into one of the newly remodeled classrooms. A donor helped renovate a technology corridor in the building, and an entrance onto the Oval is coming soon.
Comer said the donor is interested in making another major contribution to bring modern technology to more of the building if the Montana Legislature will fund some of the infrastructure needs.