The University of Montana campus

The University of Montana campus in Missoula is pictured in this file photo.

A $1.25 million gift to the University of Montana will support renovations of Jeannette Rankin Hall and the S.E.A. Change initiative.

UM launched S.E.A. Change — its abbreviation stands for “safe, empowered, accelerated” — last spring to promote women’s equality on campus. The initiative was timed to coincide with the August 18, 2020, centennial of U.S. women gaining the right to vote.

Of the total, $750,000 from Dennis and Gretchen Ecks’ gift will support the S.E.A. Change Initiative for UM Students. According to an email from Kelly Webster, UM President Seth Bodnar’s chief of staff and the S.E.A. Change leader, the initiative will have several components, including: year-long mentorship workshops for cohorts of about 20 female students, who will then become paid mentors for middle and high school students; “mindset building” and entrepreneurship training for women; and funding for four female UM students to participate in the Montana New Leadership five-day in-residence summer program each year.

Together, these new offerings aim to improve UM women's career outlooks and representation in leadership positions. Webster noted that UM has a long history of successful women graduates, from Rep. Jeannette Rankin to Native American rights activist Eloise Cobell to rodeo performers Alice and Marge Greenough. However, work remains to be done. Nationwide, women make up 51% of the U.S. population and earn more than 57% of undergraduate degrees and 59% of graduate degrees, but they still face a pay gap relative to men and are under-represented in business, academic, legal and political leadership roles.

“We believe we can offer female students experiences that will promote the mentality necessary to carry forward new trajectories in their own lives and systemic change for our country’s future,” Webster wrote in an email. “This S.E.A. Change gift will amplify students’ power to make positive change.”

Webster told the Missoulian that UM is immediately beginning the hiring process for a S.E.A. Change coordinator to oversee the initiatives. She said once that person is hired and the programming is planned, UM will announce a launch date for the mentorship group. Some of the other programmatic offerings will become available sooner, she said.

Of the gift, $500,000 will go towards renovations of 110-year-old Jeannette Rankin Hall, which will serve as the future home of the initiative and other programming. Webster wrote that this work would include improving accessibility, consulting with the historic preservation office, and possibly adding new technology and upgraded classrooms. A timeframe on the project was not available.

The Ecks, both UM alums, previously donated $8.3 million to the renovation of UM’s liberal arts building. In a video message to the Ecks, Webster called their philanthropy “absolutely awe-inspiring.”

The donation was part of Campaign Montana, the UM Foundation’s ongoing fundraising effort. Recently, the campaign also brought in a $1 million donation for expansion of the university’s Clinical Psychology Center and $5 million for a permanent home for the Montana Museum of Art and Culture.

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