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Reviewing The Finalists In University of Montana President Search

University of Montana's Main Hall.
Josh Burnham
Montana Public Radio

All four finalists vying to become the next president of the University of Montana have now wrapped up their campus visits. U.M.'s search for a new president started over a year ago when Royce Engstrom stepped down amid declining enrollment numbers. Since then a search committee made up of U.M. faculty,  staff, and students and community stakeholders has looked for Engstrom's replacement. Ninety- nine people applied for the job.

Missoulian reporter Keila Szpaller spoke with Montana Public Radio's Edward O'Brien about the search.

EDWARD O'BRIEN: Now I know this is a ridiculous question -  they're looking for the smartest brightest most engaging person to lead the University of Montana - but maybe you can narrow that down. What specific qualities do you think they were looking for?

KEILA SZPALLER: One phrase that came up repeatedly was 'inspirational leadership'. They're also looking for someone who can be strategic at this time. The challenges at the University of Montana aren't just enrollment or budget. This person also needs to come in and be able to hire cabinet posts, and the person needs to increase trust between the administration and faculty, and boost morale.

EO: When I first saw the list, when it came out a few weeks ago, I thought it was a particularly interesting group of finalists. I don't know if you would agree, but how would you characterize them?

KS: Yes, I agree and I would call them a variety pack. I think there's a sitting president, there's a former president and banker. There's a provost who has a background in hospitality and comes from university with 35,000 students, and then there's a wildcard candidate who has a background in military and at (General Electric).

EO: Do you think these are all the same kind of candidates who would have been considered 10, 15, 20 years ago, or are these people, are they curated right now for this very unique time in U.M.'s history?

KS: I think that it's a unique time in higher education, not just at the University of Montana. And I think that list of finalists reflects those changing times.

EO: You say this is a unique time in higher education even outside the realm of the University of Montana. What does that mean?

KS: Universities and other places are looking at how to increase enrollment. A lot of universities are trying to figure out how to deal with international students. They want them. That's getting harder now. A lot of them are facing budget struggles. Maybe not as severe as the University of Montana has, but financial constraints all the same. And more recently too I think we've seen some studies that show that the public faith in different institutions including institutions of higher education is maybe faltering a little bit.

EO: Well, it has been a very busy week at the University of Montana, with these presidential finalists coming in and out. Let's take these in chronological order: started last week with Mirta Martin. And I've been incorrectly pronouncing it: it is Martín. A banker, former president of Fort Hays State University in Kansas, an institution with, I believe its enrollment is roughly 15,000. Your lead sentence in your story about her visit reads this way: Mirta Martin said she believes it's time to stop cutting to try to solve the University of Montana's budget problems. What do you think she meant by that?

KS: She talked a lot about her background in both banking and academia and she, like the other candidates, saw (that) donors support the University of Montana and want to support the University of Montana. And I think what she wants to do is leverage her banking and higher ed skills together to increase the dollars coming to the campus.

EO: And you also reported she described STEM - the science, technology, engineering and math - as a buzz word, adding that she knows what employers want. Again what do you think she meant by that? What does she believe employers want?

KS: All of the candidates have picked up on faculty desire to support the liberal arts. And she said that employers want the understanding gained from a liberal arts education, and she specifically talked about the ability to analyze information and express ideas.

EO: The next presidential candidate, Andy Feinstein, is currently the provost at San Jose State University. Your report on provost Feinstein mirrored what I had personally heard, that Mr. Feinstein really connected with the people and the crowds he met.

KS: Yes, his background is in hospitality. He considers himself a people person. He had a really easy-going style when he talked with a smaller group of faculty; he made them laugh a couple of times. He didn't start off with a formal presentation; he just took their questions right out of the gate, and they had an informal back-and-forth talk, and he seemed to lift the mood a couple of times, too.

EO: And he also didn't necessarily have always a flattering portrayal, I suppose, of UM, especially when it comes to recruitment.

KS: He said his son attends a 'blue ribbon' high school in California, and there was a college fair held there recently. MSU showed up, and UM wasn't there. He wanted to share that story with the campus here. But when he talked about recruitment, he also had looked at the data. He's a data guy, and he said that recruitment isn't the only priority, that the University of Montana is also losing students, and it needs to retain the students that are heading out before they graduate.

EO: The next candidate to visit the University of Montana, fellow by the name of Seth Bodnar. And I saw him as perhaps I think the most outside-the-box candidate of all of them.

KS: Yes, I think that's exactly right. He's never been a chair or a dean or a provost or a cabinet member at a university. He's taught, but his background is really in the corporate world and in military.

EO: Now, that's raised a question with me. Did you get a sense of how that corporate-military background played or could play on a generally-perceived liberal campus in Montana's most politically liberal town? Is that an asset or a liability?

KS: I think his background in general is an asset and a liability, depending on the crowd. Some students raised eyebrows at the military and corporate background, but he's also, I think, created some buzz in the business community in Missoula. And at least some faculty don't see his outsider status as a liability, either. After the public forum, a couple of faculty members said, hey don't bring us someone at the end of a career; this guy sounds like a breath of fresh air. And he said when he looked at his career, he's really had a record of developing people to their fullest potential. And he said he has done that in the military, he's done that GE. And he wants the chance to do that at the University of Montana.

EO: Right, and the final candidate who visited, just on Monday wrapped up his visit, is Chuck Ambrose, president of the University of Central Missouri.

KS: He talked about being able to decrease, I think by some 20 percent, the amount of student loans. And he talked about holding down tuition at below the rate of inflation. And he talked too about a real singular focus on student success, and being able to raise the bar when it comes to graduation.

EO: He mentioned the importance, I understand, of what he termed sacred cow courses. By that he meant what?

KS: I think what he was talking about was how to spend resources and where you put resources, and he said in Missouri, I think 11 majors account for 40 percent of the enrollment. And you have to put money in those areas because they do drive enrollment. But then there are outliers that maybe have lower enrollment, like music, but are still part of the identity of an institution, and still need financial support.

EO: Did not offer any specifics about what some of those lesser but still very important programs may be at the University of Montana?

KS: He very much did not step in that mine field. He said he would look to people here to identify those programs for him.

EO: Keila Szpaller, Missoulian reporter, thank you so much for coming in.

KS: Thank you.

The search committee meets again Wednesday, September 27. Best-case scenario, Montana's higher education officials hope to name a finalist by mid to late fall.

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