Montana’s got a new commissioner of higher education, but before he gets to work he wants to know what Montana wants that work to be.
Clayton Christian started as the new commissioner on Jan. 1, though he is sharing duties with outgoing Commissioner Sheila Stearns through the end of next month. Less than a month in, he has started touring all of the campuses in the Montana University System to talk with students, staff, faculty and community members about their needs, stopping in Havre on Tuesday.
Tuesday evening, Christian, along with Montana State University President Waded Cruzado and fellow newcomer Montana State University-Northern’s Chancellor Jim Limbaugh, held a public forum in Hensler Auditorium on the Northern campus.
Dozens of local residents attended, including Mayor Tim Solomon, former Board of Regents member Lynn Hamilton and numerous members of Northern’s faculty.
Christian wanted to highlight the six years he spent on the Board of Regents before taking the new position, including four years “in leadership, ” and how that continuity will help ensure a smooth transition.
He reminded attendees of his dedication to the official values he and the rest of the regents recently declared, access and affordability, economic development and maximizing efficiency.
Much of the talk revolved around Montana’s place at the end of national lists of both tuition and faculty pay.
Christian said it’s great that Montana has one of the lowest tuition rates in the country, but lamented that, in many cases, it is still too expensive for many Montana families to afford.
He also commented on Montana’s place at the bottom of the list of teacher’s salaries. A Department of Education study from 2010 places Montana ahead of only Arkansas in two-year and four-year faculty salaries.
One solution discussed by the commissioner and audience alike, to both the affordability and access issues and the faculty compensation situation, was to demand of the Legislature the kind of support and investment that state governments used to make in higher education.
“In most other programs, you get one dollar of service for each dollar you spend, ” Christian said. “In the university system, you get five dollars. ”
John Musgrove, former legislator and current chair of the Hill County Democratic Party, expressed his frustration with the tuition rates that have quadrupled since he was a student.
The difference then, he said, was that people recognized the importance of a community’s contribution for the greater good, rather than pushing the costs onto individual students. He also took the opportunity to chide the area’s current Republican legislators for not doing enough, or anything, to reverse that trend.
Christian’s response was that the Montana University System needs to do a better, stronger and more cohesive job of demonstrating to the Legislature how much the schools need stronger support from the state and how wise of an investment that support would be, strengthening the people and economy of Montana.
Paul Tuss, who joined the Board of Regents not long before Christian’s move to commissioner, said he was impressed with the tour and the commissioner’s interest in each school.
“One of the things that immediately impressed me about Commissioner Christian is his insistence that the commissioner’s office schedules these listening sessions, ” Tuss said. “He is literally going to go to every branch of the system to talk to staff, faculty and students about what their priorities are and what his should be going forward.
He added that he appreciated Northern being early on that tour.
It is a good area to seek input because Northern and the community that surround it are never afraid to offer theirs.
“What I continue to hear is that they’re continually amazed by the depth of support that exists for this institution along the Hi-Line, ” Tuss said. “I think that was demonstrated once again as people took time out of their schedule to share their priorities. ”