Waded Cruzado Portrait

Montana State President Waded Cruzado poses for a photo in her office on Aug. 7.

Montana State University President Waded Cruzado always sounds upbeat, but she talks about the outlook for the upcoming school year as especially exciting.

“We are very, very happy because we have many things to celebrate this coming year,” Cruzado said.

Cruzado, 59, MSU’s first female president, spoke in an interview this week in the Montana Hall office that has been hers for almost 10 years.

She answered questions about everything from growing enrollment to bringing back the popular International Food Bazaar, the fate of the cell biology and neuroscience department, and whether MSU will ban sex between faculty members and undergraduates.

One highlight of the coming year is that MSU will host the National Conference on Undergraduate Research, expected to bring 4,000 students and professors from around the nation here in March 2020. The event will celebrate the impact on students when they do original research or creative work, an area in which MSU prides itself as a leader.

“We’ve known for a while — What you hear, you forget. What you see you might remember. But it is when you do things with your hands, the learning experience really takes hold of an individual,” Cruzado said.

At the end of this month the Bozeman campus will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Maurice Hilleman. A poor motherless kid from eastern Montana, Hilleman got a scholarship to then-Montana State College that opened doors for him to become a scientist, who developed the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine and a host of other vaccines that saved millions of lives, more than any other scientist of the 20th century.

Cruzado named after Hilleman the scholarship program MSU created four years ago to help 50 Montana kids a year who might not otherwise get to attend college, and next spring it will celebrate its first graduates.

This fall MSU, already Montana’s largest university, is preparing for what could be another record year for student enrollment.

Whether the campus will beat last year’s record of 16,902 students — its 12th record in a row — won’t be known for several weeks. But so far, Cruzado said, “Enrollment is very good. It looks very strong.”

MSU is focused not only on attracting more students, but also on “helping them stay in school, graduate on time and with less debt,” she said. “And it’s working.”

MSU’s six-year graduation rate has moved up 5 points in the last five years to 54.7%. The four-year graduation rate has jumped 10 points in seven years to 29.3%, which Cruzado called “very promising.”

The retention rate for freshmen who return to school instead of dropping out has increased by 5 points over 10 years to 77.2%.

Around campus, arriving students will see big changes — including five major construction projects totaling more than $128 million — the $32 million renovation of historic Romney Hall into a classroom building, the long-sought, $20 million American Indian Hall, the new $58 million dormitory on West College Street, reconstruction at the Student Fitness Center, where two gym roofs collapsed last winter under record snowfall, and a new $18 million building to house the football program on Bobcat Stadium’s northwest end.

“We love cranes,” Cruzado said and laughed.

People who were upset last February when MSU’s Office of International Programs abruptly canceled the International Food Bazaar after 35 years will be glad to know the event will return this year.

“The International Food Bazaar is a very important component of our academic life,” Cruzado said. “I think the Office of International Programs needed that year to reorganize itself, to reconfigure the event…. It’s coming back, in a better format.”

MSU ran into another controversy last spring over changes to the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience. Hundreds of students signed protest petitions, fearing changes would hurt their opportunities to do brain research. The provost ultimately decided to fold CBN into the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

Cruzado said despite a lot of “noise and confusion” over the changes, there were no CBN faculty retirements or resignations, and she believes the merger is “expanding the horizons” of both students and faculty members.

“Now they’re going to be working shoulder to shoulder with our most productive department in research,” she said. Cell Biology and Neuroscience is still “very strong, it is a vibrant program we’re very proud of. We look forward to wonderful things … when we put all those wonderful faculty members together.”

While other U.S. universities have taken strong stands in light of the #MeToo movement to bar faculty romances and sexual relationships with undergraduate students, MSU is still waiting for the results of its relationships task force, which started last year. Cruzado said the task force is nearly ready to move forward with a proposal.

“I’m hopeful a strong recommendation comes forward,” Cruzado said. “Times have changed and our policies and rules have to change with the times. I’m ready to take a strong stance … to accept a recommendation for banning sexual relationships between undergraduates and faculty and staff. But I also want the community to have an opportunity to express their opinions about this important topic.”

In January Cruzado will mark her 10-year anniversary as president. She can look back at a remarkable number of accomplishments during her tenure.

MSU enrollment grew 25% to make it the state’s biggest campus. It set records in research, in students winning prestigious national and international scholarships and in raising a record $413 million in donations; built new homes for the engineering, honors and business colleges, new dorms and a new dining hall; won legislators’ approval of three tuition freezes, research money and rebuilding Romney Hall; increased diversity by hiring more women faculty in STEM fields, increasing handicapped access and growing Native American enrollment; and beat the rival University of Montana Grizzlies on the football field five times.

That includes winning in Missoula four times, Cruzado pointed out with a smile.

“As strange as it is for some to think about it, a woman from Puerto Rico ending up in Montana, there has been a great fit,” Cruzado said. “I find communion with the Montana ethos of simplicity and hard work and endurance and friendship and authenticity. That’s why I love it so much here.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

Support quality local journalism. Become a subscriber.

Subscribers get full, survey-free access to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle's award-winning coverage both on our website and in our e-edition, a digital replica of the print edition.