Havre Daily News
A team that wants the Montana University System to take a stronger role in economic development came to Havre on Tuesday to gather local ideas.
The university system shouldn't give up its core mission to provide an education to Montanans, but it can expand its role, they said.
"We're just saying you can have your cake and eat it too," said Dave Gibson, Gov. Judy Martz's chief business officer.
Gibson and Montana Commissioner of Higher Education Sheila Stearns met with about 40 area people at Montana State University-Northern's Student Union Building Ballroom to give an update of the project.
Stears said the team has identified the first three areas it will focus on, and will form working groups in the next couple of months to plan how to implement changes.
Those three areas are: workforce training and education, access to postsecondary education, and distance learning via the Internet.
"We are now actively trying to figure out how to get these things done," Gibson said. "We're getting people involved."
Stearns said she wants to break new ground in building collaboration among the universities, government and private business to produce more jobs and higher wages. She said she would like people to look on the projects being undertaken as "turf-busters."
Havre plumber Bob Nault, who helped create a new two-year plumbing program at Northern, said he agrees with the goals of the group, but the university system has a barrier to overcome - lack of state support.
"We've got to get beyond the turf. The turf is in Helena," Nault said. "It's the state government."
Many at the meeting said the university system can help the economy by better preparing workers.
"The top three areas are workforce training, workforce training and workforce training," said Paul Tuss, executive director of Bear Paw Development Corp.
Gibson said working with businesses to improve worker preparation has to be a primary focus, especially in the short term.
The university system needs to address business needs "every year, all the time," Gibson said.
Board of Regents member Lynn Hamilton of Havre said increasing access to education and retention of students once they are in school are key issues, especially for residents of American Indian reservations.
She said data show that only about 50 percent of ninth-grade students on reservations graduate in four years, although that varies among reservations.
Of the students who do graduate, many go on to two-year or four-year colleges, but many don't finish their education, she said.
"I'm believing a lot of that is related to both culture and cost," she said.
She said distance education is key to workforce development in Montana.
"We can build partnerships to make sure this is available. Access is the key," Hamilton said.
Several people talked about streamlining the transfer of credits between units of the university system.
David Henry, chief executive officer of Northern Montana Health Care, said not being able to use credits earned at one university to get a degree from another is a problem.
"Boy, does that leave a bad taste in your mouth," he said.
Stearns said she has seen that problem firsthand. Her daughter-in-law transferred from one unit to another and some credits did not transfer.
The Legislature and Board of Regents are both looking into the problem, and it seems to be improving, she said. It appears that only 5 percent to 10 percent of transfer students are having problems transferring credits, Stearns said.
Roger Stone, who teaches at Northern, said the issue is more complicated. If credits can't be used for requirements in a major, transferring them doesn't help.
The Board of Regents in September 2003 asked Stearns, who became commissioner of higher education that month, to develop a leadership role for the university system in economic development. Stearns joined forces with Gibson, and they formed a team to identify initiatives to increase its role.
The leadership group includes Montana's congressional delegation and legislative leaders, Superintendent of Public Instruction Linda McCulloch, Board of Regents Chair John Mercer, and state Board of Public Education Chair Kirk Miller of Havre, who is also superintendent of Havre Public Schools.
Stearns and Gibson have been traveling around the state since June to discuss the project.
The group identified six top areas the university system should focus on, then narrowed them down to the first three to address.
The remaining three are building partnerships between the university system and businesses, increasing collaboration between the university system and government, and collaborating with the Montana Department of Commerce travel promotion division to market Montana to tourists, visitors and out-of-state students.
On the Net: Shared Leadership for a Stronger Montana Economy: www.montana.edu/wwwbor/SharedLeadInfo.htm