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Group looks for ways higher ed can help the economy

HELENA - Higher education officials, joined by legislators and business leaders, took another step Wednesday in a search for ways the Montana university system can do more to help the state's lackluster economy.

In a meeting at the Capitol, the unusual gathering began a process of trying to come up with specific steps the campuses can take to make existing businesses more successful, attract new business and create more jobs with better pay.

Some of the ideas focused on parlaying the results of university research projects into inventions that can help Montana business, and offering more help and advice to upstart business.

The meeting is the latest development in an effort launched by the Board of Regents last July to make higher education a bigger player in what has become a universal push for economic improvement.

''This is not just about what the university system can do for Montana,'' said John Mercer, regents chairman. ''It's about leaders working together for common strategies for Montana.''

Mercer, who has been the leading advocate of a higher-profile role for the university system, said he's not suggesting the campuses are doing nothing to further Montana's economic fortunes. But, he said, there must be more coordination among those efforts and what is going on elsewhere in Montana government.

''Montana does not lack leaders,'' he said. ''It lacks a coordinated effort among those leaders and the university system.''

Mercer, a former legislator, said the system can be a stable and dominant force in such a campaign, particularly in a state where term limits create frequent turnover among elected officials and a part-time Legislature meets only every two years.

He urged the group to develop yardsticks to measure progress in such areas as job growth, pay and high school graduation rates.

Dave Gibson, who heads the Office of Economic Opportunity for Gov. Judy Martz, agreed that the university system is in a ''unique and powerful position'' to spearhead the campaign.

He said preliminary work over the past few months has settled on six general goals for higher education:

making college degrees more accessible;

targeting worker training programs to better meet business needs;

helping businesses benefit more from research projects;

assisting new and existing small-business developers;

providing technical help to the rest of state government;

increasing the economic benefit that comes from the presence of the university system with its thousands of employees and students.

Among some of the ideas offered at the meeting was creating a team of ''business field representatives'' scattered around the state to make sure business owners in small towns know of the help available from the business schools on the campuses.

Richard Semenik, business school dean at Montana State University-Bozeman, also suggested creating a competition that would judge business plans and reward the best with a $50,000 prize. The money could be used to help keep a business operating, he said.

Larry Gianchetta, business dean at the University of Montana, said more attention should be paid to developing the economic potential among Montana's population of American Indian artists.


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