By Mike Rao
It is an honor to have been asked to share some thoughts for the Havre Daily News. Following a year with some challenges, I continue to be excited about Montana State University, Northern (MSUN) and its possibilities. From a financial perspective, we began our academic year with a balanced operating budget and a manageable $350,000 in long-term debt. Last year, our long term debt was $835,000. This is progress. I am most grateful to the Board of Regents, the commissioner, the president of Montana State University, and an interested Governor and Legislature for supporting MSUN through a tough year. Our campus continues to hold incredible potential for the future.
The hard work of my colleagues at MSUN and the commitment of our local communities along the hi-line, in Great Falls, and in Lewistown shows at MSUN. I appreciate our team immensely.
We are facing our challenges directly. For the last two decades, the population of our service area has declined. MSUN has lost some of its enrollment in the last few years, also. Our faculty has pulled together in ways that have helped MSUN accommodate an increasingly diverse range of student needs. Our support staff also works hard, offering students personal attention. Many students contribute as well by working for MSUN while they study.
Our academic master plan is an effort to engage all academic program faculty and staff in a process to review the needs of their programs and to consider future plans. This master plan is also designed to pull together specific plans for new programs. At a time when enrollments are not growing and budgets are, at best, flat, discussions around funding for new programs will raise questions about where MSUN might have to carefully review its commitments in areas that have lost student enrollment. The first draft will be completed sometime in early spring and should engage folks in long awaited healthy and open discussions about where MSUN is headed with its programs.
In all, MSUNs academic master plan has about six broad initiatives that are designed to promote further excellence in existing programs and to explore new programs. Developing partnerships with employers and seeking national accreditation for some existing programs will help spread the word about our excellent programs. Partnerships and needs assessments will also help us identify new program possibilities. The six initiatives include national accreditation for teacher education, student services excellence, marketing and recruitment, community college transfer, increasing grants, and serving regional students.
Our strong teacher education programs will undergo a review for national teacher accreditation in less than two years. This effort will require a lot of work, but it is designed to bring a unified vision to teacher education, focusing specifically on the competency of our newly educated teachers. By bringing our faculty members together with school leaders and others to clarify goals in preparing future teachers, documentation requirements for national accreditation (called NCATE) will begin to come together.
We are also focused on more prominently displaying our smaller size as an asset. Our Student Services Excellence Program has started with a focus on guiding new students toward our New Student Center, to ensure that they are connected to an advisor. One of MSUNs key challenges is that it has lost up to 50 percent of its freshman class from one year to the next. Yet another challenge we are trying to face directly.
Our plan calls for better marketing and advertising, as well. We know that we need to stay in continual contact with our schools and communities. We have multiplied our efforts to advertise and recruit by six times this year.
Its still not enough, mostly because our funds are limited, but we plan to continuing expanding these efforts.
We are improving course transfer agreements with community and tribal colleges. We have published course transfer guides for each individual community college in Montana and some in Wyoming and Idaho. These guides have been hand delivered to most colleges with a message expressing our interest in being more closely connected.
Grants from outside sources have increased significantly. To help stimulate grant development, we opened a grants office last year, created policies and incentives for grant development, and hired a local leader to help us investigate and organize grant possibilities. These extra dollars create jobs on campus, have the potential to expand the income of our faculty, and can provide students with opportunities to engage in projects that are likely to impact the state and the nation.
Our regional programs have not received the kind of attention that the other five initiatives have simply because theyre more challenging. The prevailing philosophy of most of my colleagues has been that we need to focus on the core needs of the institution before we expand. Nevertheless, we continue to parallel our efforts to expand regional offerings.
I will continue to try to keep our community up to date on the state of our campus. Not all of the news will be cheery, but you can be sure it will be straightforward and candid. Your support for this campus is important and appreciated by all of us.
Ed. note: Chancellor Rao will be writing a monthly column for the Daily News to keep readers up to date on university activities.