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Fran Albrecht prepares to pass her torch as a regent this year with the Montana University System in good standing by at least one important measure.

It ranks No. 1 in the West for the smallest percent increase in tuition over the last 12 years, according to data from the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.

Albrecht, a Missoula nonprofit and community leader who served as chair of the Montana Board of Regents the last two years, completes her term on Feb. 1, 2019. She anticipates she will chair at least one more meeting beyond her term as the selection process for a replacement unfolds at the same time the Montana Legislature is in session.

As she looks back on her tenure as a member of the voluntary board overseeing the system's 16 campuses and 46,000 students, Albrecht said she will depart with hope for the campuses and a profound appreciation for their work.

"I'm deeply grateful for the unique opportunity to serve the state of Montana, the Montana University System, and most especially the students at such a level of responsibility that will have an impact for many years to come," Albrecht said.

Colleagues said the next regent the governor appoints and the Senate confirms will face familiar challenges in public higher education: access and affordability. The new regent, they and Albrecht said, will need to stay focused on students, prepare to innovate rapidly and maintain relationships with other state leaders.

"So long as you have individuals on the Board of Regents who, with every vote they make, have in mind the students of the system, it's difficult to make a wrong decision," said Regent and former board chair Paul Tuss.

UM alum and former student regent Chase Greenfield also suggested the next regent should be brave and buck the tide while keeping in mind the value board members share of working for the best interest of students.

"Something that I always look for in leadership is someone who can challenge the status quo," said Greenfield, currently working at Montana State University in Billings.

Changing of guard

Tuss said Albrecht was able to lead while keeping in mind all the many ways public higher education affects the state. It contributes to the work force, creates an informed citizenry and adds to research that pushes innovation.

"Fran, I think, has done an outstanding job of, in a very comprehensive way, looking at how the Montana University System impacts our state holistically," Tuss said.

In late 2016, Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian called for the president of the University of Montana to step down after years of declining enrollment, and Albrecht said steering that change was the most difficult of her tenure. One president stepped down, the former commissioner stepped up as interim leader, and the Commissioner's Office launched a search that resulted in an unconventional choice, a young president from General Electric and the military, not academia.

Although regents don't represent their communities, Tuss said "place does matter," and the fact that Albrecht came from Missoula lent support in the community as leadership changes unfolded at UM.

"We have one of our flagships in her home community," Tuss said. "So as the University of Montana has gone through the changes it has gone through over the past few years, Fran has very nicely stepped up and assisted to make sure that those transitions are as smooth as possible."

Rep. Kimberly Dudik, who has worked with Albrecht through social service organizations in Missoula, said she appreciates Albrecht's focus on connecting high school students with higher education. As she's worked to improve higher education, Dudik said Albrecht has been both forward looking and in the trenches.

"She gets out there and works in the community and really does outreach to address issues as much as possible," said Dudik, of Missoula.

She has maintained a good rapport with legislators, Greenfield said, and he's worried that critical role will be tough for a successor. He said Albrecht always listened to his perspective as a student regent and worked with him to find solutions as well.

"She has just been a fantastic leader, and I was very lucky to have her as my chair," said Greenfield, who served from June 2017 to June 2018.

In a statement provided by his office, Christian said Albrecht has been a dedicated advocate for both students and employers in Montana: "She believes in the transformational power of education to change people's lives for the better."

Let leaders lead

Albrecht said the university system has "exceptional leaders" at its institutions, and the next regent will need to help empower them, not micromanage them.

"We need to seek to remove barriers so that we can be the vehicle to further their vision, further success. Some boards create more red tape," Albrecht said.

Albrecht stepped into the role as a lay person, but as chief philanthropy officer of Providence Montana Health Foundation, she found parallels between health care and education. In both fields, leaders face increasing costs and the need to innovate, and Albrecht said the next regent will need to continue to seek efficiencies, use technology creatively and evolve.

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She also said it's important to tap the commissioner's expertise; he has his finger on the pulse of national trends given his leadership activities outside Montana.

The university system doesn't need to turn a profit, and Greenfield said that value is important for a regent to understand, too. "We have an obligation to be good financial stewards with the resources we've been given, but those are not for the benefit of making more money," he said. "It's to change lives and shape students' careers and (students) as people."

Tuss said Albrecht has been "laser focused" on ensuring affordability for students, and that priority will remain important. As a member of the board, Tuss said he discuses higher education at the policy level, but as a father, he understands where the budget discussions hit home. Albrecht also is a parent to a college student.

"I can tell you personally that affordability is kind of at the top of the list when you're balancing your personal budget," Tuss said.

In recent years, the governor has proposed budgets that support higher education, and legislators have protected the university system compared to some other state agencies. Tuss said Albrecht has understood the importance of good relationships with the executive and legislative branches "to really underscore the emphasis of making sure a college education continues to be affordable."

"In many ways, the issues will remain the same," Tuss said.

Focus on students

Higher education opens doors, Albrecht said.

She's pleased to be part of a board that has made strides in helping more students afford college and complete it. She's pleased, too, with the new UM president, Seth Bodnar, and the momentum of the flagship, which she said is not trying to be all things to all people but is focusing on its strengths, on fiscal responsibility and on students.

She said people appreciate the university system.

"We need to channel that passion toward all that is to come because the future is bright, and it needs to be bright, because students in the state need public higher education," Albrecht said.

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University of Montana, higher education