Montana State University has long offered its students opportunities to become “leaders in the world and in society,” says MSU President Waded Cruzado, and this year the campus will focus on those opportunities during its “Year of Engaged Leadership.”

Through lectures, discussions, films, a day of service and other events, MSU plans to promote a culture that encourages students, faculty and staff members to make a difference in the real world.

“People want engaged leaders who go out and do great things to benefit the state of Montana and the world,” Cruzado said. MSU has “given every individual the opportunity to learn about leadership and draw out their leadership skills.”

She pointed to the example of MSU's student chapter of Engineers Without Borders, which won a national award and recognition for the Bozeman campus. EWB student volunteers for at least eight years have been raising money and helping to install clean drinking wells and latrines for poor village schoolchildren in Kenya.

Cruzado, 53, MSU's president for three and a half years, is hard to miss on campus – just 5 feet tall, she speaks with the accent of her native Puerto Rico. She has a winning smile, loves her grandbaby and her dogs, and laughs when she mentions MSU's moment of national fame last spring, when therapy dogs were brought into Renne Library to help students de-stress during finals.

She spoke about the upcoming year during an interview in her office, on the second floor of historic Montana Hall.

“We're eager to welcome (students) back to Montana State University,” she said. “Here they will find world-class education experiences, be in contact with faculty members who care and who exemplify the highest accolades in their careers.”

During her tenure, MSU has continued to grow dramatically. Enrollment – 14,660 students last year – has increased 20 percent in the last five years, growing from 12,170. This fall's student head count won't be ready for several weeks, but Cruzado said she expects enrollment to “remain stable or grow somewhat.”

While many find growth exciting, it also creates frustration when classrooms and dorms get crowded. Cruzado said MSU is working to accommodate more students.

This fall MSU will open the new North Hedges Suites dormitory, with its 74 beds. Another way MSU is coping with growth, she said, is to expand traditional class times, and schedule more classes before 10 a.m. and after 2 p.m. And the campus has continued to invest in high-tech classrooms, where students are experiencing higher pass-rates.

MSU is pleased, she said, to welcome 46 new faculty members this fall.

“We take special pride that our faculty have very close relationships with our students,” she said.

Professors are a big reason why MSU students have been so successful in winning prestigious national scholarships, including last year four Goldwater scholarships, plus Rhodes, Fulbright, Udall and Marshall scholarships. Winners are great students, she said, but they've also been inspired and mentored by MSU faculty members.

Other improvements that students will notice include the renovation of the College of Agriculture's Linfield Hall, earthquake safety upgrades to the College of Arts and Architecture buildings, and paving the south Fieldhouse parking lot, which used to become a muddy mess in bad weather. The North Hedges tower dormitory has $1 million worth of new, double-pane windows to save energy and make rooms more comfortable.

Construction workers are busy building a new $20 million home for the College of Business, Jabs Hall. When it opens in 2015, it will add 40,000 square feet of academic space.

That building tops Cruzado's list of accomplishments – made possible by winning from alum Jake Jabs a $25 million donation, the largest single gift in Montana history to a state campus.

She successfully raised $6 million in private donations for the $10 million expansion of the Bobcat football stadium (stadium revenues are to pay off a loan for the rest).

Cruzado also had a successful session with the 2013 Legislature last spring, when MSU persuaded lawmakers to double to 20 the number of new students accepted into the WWAMI doctor education program, the first expansion in 38 years. Lawmakers also agreed to a new, Montana-centered veterinarian training program.

This summer Cruzado took a busload of campus administrators on a two-day Beef Tour, to meet stockgrowers around the state, chat in feedlots and cafes, and ask what MSU can do for their industry and the sons and daughters they send to the Bozeman campus.

Despite her great successes building relationships and winning friends off campus, Cruzado has received some criticism on campus. The Faculty Senate voted in May to make their No. 1 priority to retain MSU's Carnegie Foundation status as one of the top 108 universities in the nation for research, a vote sparked by concerns that research may be losing ground here.

MSU's research spending this year totaled $93.7 million, down from the prior year's record of $112.3 million. Cruzado chalked up the decline to cutbacks in federal spending, called the sequester. This summer she signed an open letter to President Barack Obama and Congress, joining 165 other university presidents from Berkeley to the Ivy League, urging the federal government not to shrink America's research spending and risk an “innovation deficit” with countries like China.

“I am an eternal optimist,” Cruzado said. “We're proud of who we are as a research institution. We're proud of our cohort of new faculty.”

And she ended with her signature line: “Go Bobcats!”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

Michael Becker can be reached at becker@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2657.