Montana State University is celebrating its 120th year with record enrollment — exceeding 15,000 students for the first time, President Waded Cruzado said Wednesday in her address on the state of the university.
“The future is bright,” a smiling Cruzado told more than 200 professors, staff members and students who gathered in the Strand Union Building. “There are many wonderful things happening.”
The speech kicked off MSU's first all-day open house, where campus leaders gave detailed updates on finances, research, student affairs and other areas and offered people the chance to ask questions.
Cruzado listed many signs that MSU is strong and growing. It has hired 46 new faculty members; students have won prestigious Goldwater, Marshall and Rhodes scholarships; professors have won many awards; and Forbes magazine just listed MSU among its top 300 universities.
She cited new projects promising a brighter future, including the upcoming Blackstone Entrepreneurship center, Jabs Hall under construction as a new home for the College of Business, and requests going to the Board of Regents next week to elevate the successful honors program to the status of a college and to plan a new 400-bed dormitory for MSU's growing enrollment.
“Your esteem is high,” said Clay Christian, commissioner of higher education, answering a question about how MSU is viewed around the state. “Great things are happening” at MSU and that's why enrollment is growing, he said. “People vote with their feet.”
Exact enrollment numbers won't be known until the Sept. 25 count, but a preliminary count showed MSU could have as many as 15,389 students this fall. If that holds, it would be a 4 percent increase from last year's record. The freshman class may reach a historic high of 2,936 students, which would be an 8 percent jump from last year.
MSU also expects its largest share of Montana high school graduates and a growing number of out-of-state students, said Robert Marley, interim vice president for student success.
Growth causes “a little stress and strain for faculty,” Marley said, but he added that students “are coming because of you, because of the excellence on campus.”
Some professors said they were worried about MSU coping with growth by relying increasingly on non-tenured instructors and about the drop in MSU's research spending, which was $93.7 million last school year, down 17 percent from the previous year's record.
Anne Camper, who just took over in July as interim vice president for research, said a lot of the blame goes to the federal sequester budget cuts and the end of stimulus money.
The drop in grants has cut into the overhead funds MSU relies on to support research, creating a $2.5 million shortfall in the research office. Valerie Copié, chemistry associate professor, said if the research office can't contribute when grants require cost sharing, “my fear is a downward spiral. I worry we're going to lose momentum.” If labs shut down, she said, “we may never recover.”
Camper said MSU does have some private grant money it can use, though chances of restoring overhead money at the department level are “not good.” Camper stressed that top administrators are still working together to find solutions.
“There is kind of an uproar among faculty,” said Tomas Gedeon, math professor, because professors worry they'll wake up on a Monday and find the small amounts they've set aside from grants may be taken away by MSU to solve the research office shortfall.
Terry Leist, vice president for finance, tried to be reassuring, saying that MSU's budgets total more than $477 million and solutions to this “little bump” will be found, without raiding their funds.
Cruzado said she wanted to “express my absolute support for research,” and added that MSU would use the present challenges as “an opportunity to come out stronger … as we continue to move Montana State University from good to great.”
Michael Reidy, associate professor of history and Faculty Senate chair-elect, praised MSU administrators for opening their financial books and for agreeing to let him and Robert Mokwa, Faculty Senate chair, join the president's Executive Council.
“I came in ready for a fight,” Reidy said, but when the Faculty Senate leaders asked to be included in meetings of the president's inner group, “Waded said, ‘Great idea.'”
After more than six hours of presentations, Mokwa said the open house was “a great concept.”
“Thanks for all you do for Montana State University,” Cruzado said in closing. “This academic year is a very promising one.… Go Bobcats!”
Gail Schontzler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 582-2633.