Havre Daily News/Nikki Carlson
Montana State University-Northern's new Chancellor James Limbaugh answers questions from the local press in his office in Cowan Hall this morning. Limbaugh's first day on the job was Sunday.
Montana State University-Northern’s new Chancellor James Limbaugh hit the ground running, and driving, this week, spending more time around campus or in a car to and from Bozeman than behind his desk in Cowan Hall.
Limbaugh, in a press conference this morning, gave a summary of his first few days of work as well as his thoughts on the next few crucial months, both for his own tenure and “the history of the institution. ”
“There is such a strong feeling of engagement and belonging here, ” Limbaugh said. “The community really owns Northern as its own. That’s where the success is going to be. My job is to serve as a catalyst, to get everyone going in the same direction. That’s very important.
“The decisions we make in the next few months are really important to the history of the institution. And I don’t take that lightly. ”
After the November announcement of Limbaugh taking the position, he got his possessions in San Angelo, Texas, on a truck and arrived in Havre on Dec. 23. He spent the next week unpacking, getting a feel for the community, and attending some Northern basketball games.
His first official day was Sunday, though campus was closed until Tuesday, when he first got into his office.
When asked about how he has spent his first few days, Limbaugh replied “you want the honest truth, I’ve been trying to figure out where the buildings are.
“Right now it’s spending a lot of time away from my desk and out on campus, getting a feel for the campus climate, ” Limbaugh said. “It’s very important for people to get a chance to talk to me. ”
Limbaugh repeatedly emphasized the importance of understanding the area, because big decisions will need to be made, and he said he wants to make the best ones.
“I learned in my years in higher education that before you start making changes, first you have to understand the culture of the community, ” Limbaugh said.
Another key component to any of Limbaugh’s decisions is data.
“Everybody needs to understand, I’m a big believer in data-informed decision making, ” Limbaugh said. “I need to sit down and analyze enrollment trends in each of the majors. ”
The first priority, once data is analyzed and the community’s needs are understood, is enrollment, Limbaugh said, as well as types of enrollment.
“Enrollment is the key to our growth and semester credit hours are our currency, ” Limbaugh said. “People have to understand, if we say we’ve got a headcount of 1,500, well that’s great. But if half of those students are six-credits or less, my budget is still down and we can’t grow. ”
Recruiting will be one of many institutional plans Limbaugh hopes to develop over the next month or two. According to Limbaugh, there are three primary factors in recruiting students today: the quality of the website, the atmosphere on campus, and if the prospective student feels they could be friends with the students they meet.
All three will need to be developed, Limbaugh believes, as competition gets more fierce in the upcoming years. Limbaugh cited a Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education study that predicts continually decreasing numbers of high school graduates in Montana through at least 2018.
In a state with fewer than 1 million people and eight public institutions, as Limbaugh noted, the numbers are already tight.
But that is where his analysis and plans will come in, to determine Northern’s niche strengths and play to them, without sacrificing the satisfaction of the community, the students or the school’s faculty and staff.
“If I shift resources to grow another program, then someone else doesn’t get them and that causes institutional conflict, ” Limbaugh said. “But the reality is on every campus, certain programs carry the weight and everybody benefits from it. ”
While it may be a challenge, Limbaugh feels up to it, and he feels that Northern, and Havre, are better equipped to handle it than other communities and institutions.
“One of the reasons I came to Northern was, without exception, the level of commitment by staff and faculty here, the level of support from the community was beyond anything I ever saw when I interviewed at other institutions, ” Limbaugh said. “I felt that if there was any opportunity to be successful, Havre and Northern have all the pieces together. ”