Tim Nichols has traveled to the Galapagos Islands with honors students for a course on evolution, and he's read a book on mindfulness with the high academic achievers.
"Oftentimes, they are driven, really busy overachievers, and so to step away from that a little bit and just breathe, sort of literally, was real refreshing for them," Nichols said about the book group.
In July, Nichols steps into the role of dean of the Davidson Honors College at the University of Montana, which counts an estimated 700 undergraduates. UM notes he comes from the University of Wyoming, where his wife, Laurie Nichols, is president, and earlier from South Dakota State University.
UM also recently named Thomas Gallagher as dean of Missoula College, and he started the job this week.
At UM, Nichols fills the role Brock Tessman left in 2018 when he went to work for the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.
UM has consolidated some positions in a recent restructure, but Provost Jon Harbor earlier said the Honors College, which UM describes as "an intellectual and social hub to exceptional students," is important to the future of the flagship and would continue to be led by a dean. In a statement about Nichols' hire, Harbor said he "presented a compelling vision for the future of public honors education."
In a phone call this week, Nichols said part of the vision comes from understanding the current strengths of the Honors College, including its history, staff, donor support, and "dynamic student body." He said he wants to build on its foundation in consultation with others at UM, and he is excited to consider interdisciplinary coursework, international offerings, and other "enriching, educational experiences for students."
"I think the Honors College upholds and brings to life the university's highest aspirations," Nichols said. "And so it allows us to attract and retain and provide extraordinary educational experiences to the best and brightest students, and that's a very compelling mission."
At the University of Wyoming, Nichols taught honors courses, and from 2008 to 2016, he led the Van D. and Barbara B. Fishback Honors College at South Dakota State, according to UM — which noted he led the Honors College through "unprecedented growth."
Nichols said the Honors College in South Dakota was just 10 years old when he took over and had gone through its early stages of development, and he helped grow it from some 50 students to roughly 1,000.
"So indeed it was an exciting time of growth and development, expanding our work with students, expanding our sort of presence on campus," Nichols said.
Generally, in working with honors students, he's collaborated with nonprofits for service opportunities, celebrated undergraduate research, led book groups, and helped put on campus town halls to discuss issues of concern. Nichols said a recent town hall dealt with mental health, a topic that loosely tied to the book about mindfulness, "Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life."
"How do they (students) manage the issues of stress or anxiety or depression while they're going to college?" Nichols said. "(The discussion was) unpacking this notion of honors students as perfect and being open to the fact that hey, we have our struggles too, and we as a community or an honors family need to support our students through that."
Nichols' great-grandparents homesteaded in the Flathead, and his parents grew up there, he said. "My brother and I used to visit every summer. Though I've never lived in Montana, it does feel a bit like coming home."
His bio at the University of Wyoming notes he earned degrees in agriculture and adult education from Washington State University and a doctorate in rural sociology from South Dakota State. Nichols said he's "thrilled" to be headed to the Missoula flagship, his late mother's alma mater.
"I think it's a beautiful spot and a great university and just a real gem of an Honors College," Nichols said.
Nichols' wife is president of the University of Wyoming, but this spring the university announced she would not stay on as head of the campus and would become a faculty member after her contract ran out June 30, according to the Casper Star-Tribune. Nichols said his wife will continue to teach there next school year, although many of her classes will be online.
"So she'll be able to spend some time with me in Missoula and is looking forward to doing that," Nichols said.
Gallagher, Missoula College's new dean, holds a master's degree and doctorate in educational leadership from UM; a master's in computer science from Western Washington University, and a bachelor's in mathematics from Carroll College, according to UM.
In a news release, UM noted Gallagher has been with the college since 2001 and served in a variety of positions, associate dean, director of the information technology degree program, and others. His experience and research interests include transfer education, dual enrollment, and work-based learning.
"The focus at Missoula College has always been serving students and the local community," Gallagher said in a statement. "I look forward to continuing to work with the energetic team of faculty and staff in place. We are well-poised to further the comprehensive mission assigned to two-year colleges in serving our community."
In a statement, Harbor said he believes Missoula College has the opportunity to develop innovative programs and support the community's growth.
"I am confident that Dr. Gallagher's years of experience and service to Missoula College and the University of Montana will help stabilize and begin realizing the college's tremendous potential," Harbor said.
The Missoula College dean will earn $115,000, and Honors College dean will earn $130,000.