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University of Montana's new provost wants to serve students from A to Z

University of Montana's new provost wants to serve students from A to Z

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Jon Harbor wants to know the story a GoPro would tell if a University of Montana student wore one for 24 hours.

The new provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at UM is an advocate of digital tools and online education, but he also started traditional Swedish "fika" gatherings at Purdue University, a time for people there to share coffee, pastries and talk in person.

Harbor wants to understand the student experience from start to finish, not only the classes students will take, but the clubs they'll join and programs they'll be part of in the residence halls. He wants to know about their path through UM, from the transition into school to an internship to degree completion and launch into a job.

Last Wednesday, Harbor officially stepped into the second-in-command post at UM, replacing Provost Perry Brown, who retired from UM in June 2016, and interim Provost Beverly Edmond.

But the geographer and scholar isn't new to Montana. He's visited since 1983.

In the late 1980s, he placed sensors on the underbelly of a glacier in Glacier National Park and on the rock below to measure its movement. And he has served on an advisory board to Salish Kootenai College for several years.

In 2017, he landed among the finalists for an executive post at Montana State University.

Another administrator got the position in Bozeman, but Harbor went on to nail his interviews with the search committee at UM with acute analysis of the Missoula flagship's strengths and weaknesses.

UM professor Doug Emlen, who has served on searches for more than 20 years, said in a matter of a couple of days, Harbor had put his finger on the pulse of the institution.

"He impressed me more than any candidate I have ever seen on any search. Period," Emlen said.

As a candidate for the job at MSU, Harbor described the home of the Bobcats as "clearly the university of choice in Montana," according to the Bozeman Chronicle. Last week, though, he said both campuses have their unique strengths, and both can be "top choice flagship universities."

"I was attracted to the University of Montana because of the opportunity to really make a difference (for the state) with a nontraditional president who has got some great ideas and some great abilities to turn things around," Harbor said.

UM President Seth Bodnar started in January and came from the military and General Electric. He has two master's degrees from the University of Oxford but no doctorate. Before he started, he set out to hire a right-hand executive with "unquestionable academic qualifications," said search committee member and professor Rich Bridges.

UM chose Harbor, former executive director for digital education, associate vice provost for teaching and learning, and professor of environmental geosciences at Purdue. 

The administrator and researcher walked in the door of a campus that's in the midst of a restructure designed to help shore up its budget. At a time when UM aims to push up student enrollment and retention, Harbor will oversee both academic affairs and student affairs.

"It is a change for this office to be overseeing it all and to start integrating those elements of life on campus," said Claudine Cellier, director of academic personnel and communication in the provost's office.

Those who have worked with Harbor believe he's up to the task, full of new ideas, and unafraid to make tough decisions.


On a plane ride from Denver to Missoula, Harbor and his seat mate, a UM alum, started talking, and eventually, she asked him what he was doing in Missoula.

"I'm interviewing for a position there as provost," Harbor said. He recalled her response: "What's that?"

"No one knows what the provost does," he said.

He said he considers the job as chief academic officer for the campus. He said Bodnar wants him to play a key role in helping a wide range of faculty and students focus on "amazing student outcomes."

"So this is really all about student success. That's a key priority for the university," Harbor said.

One improvement Bodnar has talked about is an increase in student retention. UM has had trouble with enrollment, but higher education officials have more recently been talking about the need to keep students from dropping out, too.

UM has not had comprehensive data on the reasons students leave, and Harbor said he and the new vice president for enrollment and communications are interested in gathering the information. 

"You can't make good decisions without good data," he said. "How are we making sure that we're thinking through all of the opportunities to help a student shape their life?" 

In a statement provided by Chief of Staff Kelly Webster, Bodnar said it's that attention to students that makes Harbor a match with UM. 

"What excites me most about Dr. Harbor is his extraordinary pedigree in meeting students’ needs and his innovative approaches to serving students," Bodnar said in an email. "Dr. Harbor brings to UM exactly what makes UM so special: an emphasis on the student experience, an appreciation for our extraordinary setting, and a commitment to excellence in faculty research.

"He already has proven to be a critical member of the team and a valuable partner to me. Slam dunk.”


Harbor was executive director of digital education at Purdue, which recently finalized a deal to acquire online Kaplan University and convert it from a for-profit to a nonprofit. The Lafayette Journal & Courier reported the move was considered "innovative, controversial or both" depending on the source.

Last week, Harbor said he wants to set up a task force to grow online opportunities at UM in his first year. The campus already offers online learning, but it needs to catalyze the programs it does offer, support faculty who are engaged in it, and demonstrate "what good online teaching looks like," he said.

"One of the keys here is to make sure we're meeting students needs," Harbor said.

He said he's heard "harrowing stories" about students who have had to go home for a family emergency but were able to continue learning via online courses. Online teaching isn't the only solution, he said, but it's one solution to meet students' needs.

He also said he thinks of digital education as a continuum. Already, he said many students, faculty and staff are using a wide range of digital tools in the classroom, such as digital surveys and online simulations.

"The reality today for most of our learners across a wide spectrum is that digital learning is a part of their lives," Harbor said.

As he sees it, technology can enrich learning. Instead of a professor giving the same lecture in class, students can listen to the recorded lecture outside of class, and then in the classroom, "it's about active learning," discussing and debating the topic and working with related data.

In the provost's office, Harbor said staff wanted to present an orientation for him. He told them to go record some presentations instead.

"We live this, right?" Harbor said. "I'm watching those in the evening while I'm folding laundry. And then when I come in, I can actually talk to them meaningfully about it."


Several search committee members said Harbor studied UM and exhibited a clear understanding of the institution that surpassed the knowledge of other candidates.

In a meeting with the committee, he ran down a list of UM's strengths and weaknesses, and Professor Emlen said he had goosebumps at the end. "It was everything that makes this place great, and it was all of our problems stripped bare."

Harbor shared text from the public talk he gave during his interview. He noted understaffed units meant faculty had taken on work that should be done by staff and were consequently pulled away from "research, teaching and engagement."

He also noted the narrative around STEM is shifting, and society is more and more seeing the need for workers to have "soft skills" in addition to knowledge of science, technology, engineering and math. In that regard, he said UM is poised to lead, and he reiterated a phrase Bodnar often uses about the source of UM's strength: "UM is well-positioned to be a leader in STEM-plus and Liberal Arts-plus, or what I think you have called 'the power of the 'and.'"

Emlen said Harbor has the experience to make difficult academic and financial decisions. In one of their meetings, he said Harbor told them he knew what was being asked of him, and he wanted to know if search committee members would back him if he took the challenge.

"I walked away thinking I would love for this university to be in his hands," Emlen said.

Bridges agreed Harbor was on target in his assessment of UM and said he's sincere but straightforward.

Harbor's LinkedIn page notes he previously worked as dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Colorado in Denver and also served as a fellow at the American Council on Education, "the nation's premier higher education leadership development program."

He received his geography degree from the University of Cambridge, master's degree from the University of Colorado in Boulder, and doctorate from the University of Washington. His curriculum vitae notes he received an honorary doctorate from Stockholm University in Sweden and was a Fulbright Senior Scholar at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.

Bridges said Harbor's experience at a variety of different schools and under different leadership will serve him well at UM, and his straightforward style complements Bodnar's. 

"I think they're going to make a great team," Bridges said.

Sara Rinfret, search committee member and director of UM's public administration master's degree program, said Harbor is a scholar and an innovator, and Montana will benefit from his interest in using technology to engage students in both rural and urban communities.

"It's our job to provide an accessible education, so trying new things to make sure that happens is important," Rinfret said.


At Purdue, director of undergraduate research Amy Childress said Harbor was not afraid of making tough calls.

"He will solicit input from a variety of stakeholders, and he will listen, but at the end of the day, he is going to make the decisions," Childress said.

Harbor was her most recent supervisor, and she said even when she disagreed with him, she believed her voice was heard and Harbor's process was transparent. She also said Harbor is constantly generating ideas, and his ego isn't tied to them.

"That's what is really fun and exciting about working with Jon," Childress said.

In an email, senior vice provost for teaching and learning Frank Dooley noted Harbor brought "fika" to a reorganized unit at Purdue. Dooley, who oversaw Harbor, said it's easy to lose sight of interpersonal communication in a world full of emails, tweets and texts, and Harbor brought people together with the Swedish custom.

"This simple idea has led to people realizing the importance of the others that they work with," Dooley said. "Coming out from behind the screen has allowed the ability to share and talk through ideas, concepts, problems, etc. In short, it's OK to have some fun at work." 

UM Dean Chris Comer, who led the search, said people in higher education can take themselves too seriously at times, and at the water cooler, people have noticed Harbor's sense of humor.

"They really appreciate it. He's quick-witted, and I've seen his humor flash at a bunch of points," Comer said.


Although Harbor may be adept at tough decisions, he won't be making them unilaterally at UM.

The faculty, staff and student senates also share in setting direction for the campus, and it's hard for an administration to move forward or sail smoothly without gaining support of the Faculty Senate in particular.

Harbor said he respects shared governance, and a university is "not a good place for command and control leadership." For healthy outcomes, he said faculty should question the administration, and the administration should question faculty, too.

At the same time, he said he believes in teamwork, and he doesn't believe it's healthy for different areas of the campus to be disconnected.

"The university will not get anything done without us all pulling together in the same direction," Harbor said.

New administrative duties will likely consume most of the new provost's time at UM, but he's still a researcher who is part of an international team looking at long-term changes to ice sheets in Antarctica in response to climate. The scientists collect rock samples from mountain ridges, and they can tell where the ice was at different levels.

Harbor himself has scrambled up the slopes to gather samples. He's also helped communities understand how land-use change impacts water issues, and he's interested in the way people learn, especially about the environment.

"I have fun. I work on lots of different things," Harbor said.


Harbor has worked under a nontraditional president before when former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels became president of Purdue. He said nontraditional presidents bring expertise from different areas, but they also have gaps in their knowledge about academic culture.

He's excited to work with Bodnar and on a campus he believes has "new energy." He's interested in building on UM's 17 percent increase in summer enrollment this year compared to last and sees the Missoula setting as a draw.

To greet Harbor on his first day, staff wrote a message on the wall in large letters: "Welcome, Provost Harbor."

He greeted them back with this written response: "UM OTR. We Transform Lives."


"We're talking about the University of Montana, which is now on the rise," Harbor said.

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