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University of Montana President Seth Bodnar launched his first State of the University address with evidence the flagship is educating students to become productive and engaged citizens — and interesting ones.

But the recently minted campus leader didn't sidestep UM's challenges. 

Earlier this month, CBS ran a story about UM graduate Emily Graslie, who became the chief curiosity correspondent at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History.

UM showed the clip Friday on the big screen at the Montana Theatre with a nearly full house. Bodnar noted art major Graslie came from UM, as did Hank Green, the famous YouTube producer who helped her launch the science show that in turn helped her land the one-of-a-kind job. Meg Oliver, the journalist who reported the piece also graduated from UM.

"That story, which aired around the country this past weekend, is a great example of the amazing impact of UM and our graduates around the world and a terrific way to kick off the academic year," Bodnar said.

After highlighting the mark of achievement and one focused on former students, Bodnar used his first State of the University address to present the campus and its people as poised to take the actions needed to turn a "collective vision" for the university into reality.

"Change will now be in the doing, not just in the thinking about what we should do," Bodnar said. "These efforts will require the collective capacity of our faculty, our staff and our students."

A UM communications official noted more people attended the State of the University this year than have done so in roughly 20 years. Bodnar took the helm of the flagship in January after years of enrollment declines and budget trouble, and many community members are rooting for the unconventional leader from the military and private industry to turn the ship.

In a speech peppered with applause, the president presented the flagship's achievements, including ones that are influencing society, and he outlined UM's areas of focus for the future. In a shift from previous addresses and nod to the shared leadership structure of the campus, Bodnar invited officers of the Faculty and Staff Senates and Associated Students of the University of Montana to share the microphone. The three leaders offered remarks, and Provost Jon Harbor followed with a talk that included reference to "a more sustainable financial model."

***

In his talk, Bodnar said he is confident that UM is positioned to succeed despite tough times for higher education in general. He said that's because one "simple equation" sits at the heart of what makes UM a special institution: "Quality + Access = Transformation."

"Our job here is not simply to provide an elite education for the select few, but rather, an elite education that's accessible to people from different starting points and all walks of life," Bodnar said.

An affordable, high-quality education is a critical pillar of America's social compact, and it's one that transforms lives and sustains communities, he said.

At the same time, he said it's clear higher education faces hurdles.

"But when I think about these challenges, what I take away is not simply that the task ahead is hard, though certainly it is," Bodnar said. "What I take away from this is that our work is worthwhile, arguably more so right now than it's ever been."

In his talk, Bodnar presented additional evidence UM is delivering quality education and producing significant research. For instance, he said the law school ranks seventh in judicial clerkship placements and 16th nationally in federal judicial clerkships, ahead of Columbia University and New York University. 

UM also had another record year of research, pulling in $96.5 million in awards compared to $93.4 million the previous year, he said. "And this research is making an impact across a wide range of disciplines."

Faculty member Julie Wolter, for instance, received a perfect score on a National Institutes of Health grant, he said, earning $4.5 million to study language development and dyslexia in children. And faculty member Anya Jabour served as historical adviser for the PBS series "Mercy Street," ensuring viewers received a more accurate and comprehensive history than they would have otherwise, he said.

***

The president also noted it's time to take action at UM. Leaders at the campus have spent many months discussing and debating academic and financial priorities in multiple efforts.

The planning came in response to an enrollment decline that reached 28.5 percent last spring compared to 2010 and has affected UM's budget. Shortly after he came on board, the president noted the campus needed to fix a $10 million gap between revenue and expenses over four years.

"We must acknowledge that the work ahead of us will at times be difficult," Bodnar said Friday. "We will make hard choices around faculty resources and how we allocate them to most effectively meet the needs of our students. … While I know that we will face some painful decisions, we will not defer these decisions."

The president also offered glimpses of positive signs on the budget and recruitment. He said sustainability measures have resulted in nearly $300,000 in annual utilities savings, and he estimated a revamp of travel procedures would save $100,000, along with 4,700 hours of staff time.

Enrollment would be down slightly in the fall as predicted earlier, but the numbers look "much better than we projected in February," Bodnar said. And summer enrollment grew 17 percent, "the highest it's been in recent years."

In a restructure announced in March, the president combined enrollment and communications duties under one vice president. In his talk, he noted Cathy Cole was on board as the new, hard-working and "terrific" vice president for enrollment and communications, and those who hadn't yet met her would enjoy the opportunity.

In months of planning for an institution that has less revenue, the campus has consistently articulated its values, the president said.  

"We know what we want to do; it's time now to roll up our sleeves and focus on making steady progress," Bodnar said.

UM won't look the same in the future, he said, and as such, he noted the following priorities:

• Place student success at the center of UM: "We will renew our intense focus on student retention, persistence and success through graduation and beyond."

• Drive excellence and innovation in teaching, learning and research: He said the pedagogy will evolve and adapt to best prepare students for a dynamic world.

• Embody the principle of "Mission First, People Always." Bodnar said people have heard in the past that UM's budget is 90 percent personnel — UM has wanted to drive that number to the 75 percent range. However, Friday, the president said the high figure is "evidence of the absolutely fundamental role of people in making this institution successful."

• Partner with place. UM partners with the city of Missoula and state of Montana, Bodnar said: "I'm proud of all that we have done and will actively encourage campus engagement in this community and in the surrounding region, and we will work to build upon these partnerships."

• Proudly tell the UM story. "We're not going to be arrogant about it, but we are going to be forceful and persistent in proudly telling UM's story — the story you are writing every day."

***

On Aug. 1, Provost Harbor stepped into the role of the second-in-command executive at UM, and Friday, he discussed some of the wider academic goals for the campus.

The state has set a target that 60 percent of adults have post-secondary degrees or credentials by 2025, and the governor created a cabinet to focus on that effort, he said.

"To achieve this will require very significant improvements in student success," Harbor said. "I interpret this challenge as our obligation, and I know it is one that we can fulfill together."

To help students reach their potential, the provost said he wants to catalyze innovation and excellence at UM, showing faculty new approaches to teaching and developing different ways to reach students. The provost also referenced some of the additional work the campus will do to become financially sustainable.

Last semester, the president released a Strategy for Distinction, which outlined preliminary recommendations for possible program reconfigurations and faculty reductions. Friday, the president and Harbor talked about student success, and Harbor noted it's linked to where UM puts dollars.

"Student success is also about making sure that we are matching our current resources to our needs," Harbor said. "This is why, this semester, after input from many of you, we are engaging every academic unit in planning for its future instructional staffing."

At a media briefing after the event, Bodnar confirmed the planning effort was a phase following the initial recommendations in the Strategy for Distinction and feedback to it. He anticipates the effort will result in revised recommendations in the middle of the fall semester.

On his first day on the job, the provost described UM as a campus "on the rise," and he used the phrase again Friday.

"Extensive engaged planning over the past few years has led to specific priorities for action that will drive what we do. That will drive our rise," Harbor said.

"As a community, we have looked hard at where we are, recommended how to move forward, and now we will be moving specific steps through our governance processes to make this happen."

In the media briefing, Bodnar said it isn't yet clear if retrenchment, a laborious way to cut tenured faculty, will be necessary. Rather, he said UM must "rebalance" its resources; the change includes in some cases adding faculty in units as well.

Harbor, a geographer who remains active in research, also discussed being "on the rise" in physical terms. Faculty member Rebecca Bendick shared with him some of the work her graduate student Ellen Knappe is doing, and the "scientist nerd" wanted to pass it along.

"GPS measurements show that the valley and surrounding peaks here are displaced up and down annually by about 8 millimeters in response to the loading and unloading of the Earth's surface by the mountain snowpack," Harbor said. "So today, we are literally and physically on the rise."

He also said, "I'm convinced that as a community, we have the strength and quality to sustain that rise."

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University of Montana, higher education