After 119 years of service to Montana, to Butte, and to the thousands of students who have found knowledge, opportunity and careers in its classrooms, Montana Tech has a new chancellor, a new focus and a new set of challenges and opportunities.
Designated a “special focus” institution by the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education (OCHE), the slightly renamed Montana Technological University is focused on the future and expanding the level of innovation and problem-solving on campus. And its academic leaders are determined, even within that “special focus,” to diversify the university’s marquee offerings while maintaining its heritage programs.
When incoming chancellor Les Cook arrives this week, he will greet a strong academic leadership team:
- Provost Doug Abbott, Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, who has held that double-barreled post for a dozen and a half years. You don’t get more Oredigger than Doug Abbott, who played receiver for the 1983 Frontier Conference Champion team and also coached running backs and quarterbacks for the Diggers from 1988 to 1992. The Helena native got a degree in petroleum engineering, but oil happened to be hovering around $8 a barrel when he graduated, so he ended up getting an MBA and a doctorate in educational leadership at the University of Montana, ultimately becoming a full professor in Tech’s Business Department, and moved on up to his present leadership role.
- Beverly Hartline, Vice Chancellor for Research and Dean of the Graduate School. Hartline is in her seventh year in the role, responsible for growing both the undergraduate and graduate research programs and growing the graduate school. She has more than 30 years of experience in research management, science and technology policy, and leadership at other universities and in Department of Energy national laboratories. She also served as assistant director for physical science and engineering at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. She has a doctorate in geophysics from the University of Washington.
- Steve Gammon, Dean of the College of Letters, Sciences and Professional Studies. Gammon is an experienced administrator with expertise in instruction and student learning. He brings a ton of real-world perspective to a challenging role at Montana Tech. Gammon came to Tech from the University of Maine, where he was provost at the Fort Kent campus. He was academic vice president at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, and spent time at the University of Idaho, Western Washington University and the Air Force Academy. Gammon received his doctoral degree from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in chemistry and chemical education and his bachelor of arts degree in chemistry from Bowdoin College.
- Dan Trudnowski, Dean of the School of Mines and Engineering, received his undergraduate degree in engineering science from Montana Tech in 1986 and holds a master’s and doctorate in electrical engineering from Montana State University. He worked at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory as a senior research engineer before joining Montana Tech in 1995. He is recognized by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) as a fellow for his research, primarily focused on power system dynamics and controls. Trudnowski took a lead role in the Program Prioritization process that followed the university’s special-focus designation.
- Dave Gurchiek, Dean of Highlands College. Gurchiek joined Montana Tech as Highlands College dean in 2017, coming from City College of MSU-Billings. Gurchiek spent two decades at MSUB, including stints as interim associate dean; department chair in nursing, health, and public safety; program director; union vice president and campus president; academic senator; and an Institutional Review Board member. He holds a doctorate in human services with a focus in public safety from Capella University and a master's degree in health and wellness from California College for Health Sciences.
Hurtling toward the future
The way these team members interact will have much to do with how Tech under Les Cook performs in this year of renewal — and they’re off to a great start.
They each acknowledge that Cook may well tweak their goals and their vision when he digs into his new job. But they haven’t been waiting around for marching orders. Each of them is passionate and articulate in laying out growth opportunities and challenges.
Trudnowski was very involved in twin efforts to realign and reorganize the university over the last year. He was co-chair of WIRE, or Workgroup for Institutional Realignment for Excellence, and also served on the Program Prioritization Committee.
In addition to the higher-profile results of that process — moving and changing the shape of programs like health care informatics and technical communication, and cutting some faculty positions — the process has developed a different way of doing things.
“We’re much more strategic” about faculty hiring decisions,” Abbott pointed out. “In years past, if Department X had a retirement, Department X got that position refilled. Now, we are employing a more data-driven approach to staffing needs on campus. ‘Does Department X need that position or does Department Y need it more?’ That’s just the reality of the situation.”
Gammon, who has been at Tech just a year, says that’s the way it’s done at almost every institution he can think of. “The fact that that system didn’t initially exist here was surprising,” he said. “You have to make the case for what you need. It’s a never-ending process.”
Also, the colleges and deans are working much more closely together, collaborating in the areas where their missions intersect. And the collaboration doesn’t stop at the edge of campus. There’s a realization that it’s in Tech’s interest to collaborate with other schools.
For instance, Hartline points out, when Tech is seeking research grants that involve upgrading infrastructure, it makes sense to be able to say that other colleges — like Carroll, Montana Western and the like – will also benefit from the increased capability on the Tech campus. “And the grant proposal will be looked upon more favorably if we can make that case,” she said.
The cleanest ‘clean room’
One piece of research infrastructure well on its way to being a crown jewel is Tech’s new “clean room” for nanoscience projects.
The room, on the second floor of the Natural Resource Research Center building, will allow greatly sophisticated nanosciences research in a variety of fields.
“We have the cleanest “clean room” in the Pacific Northwest,” Trudnowski says with a smile.
“It’s been hard work and it’s an expensive room,” Hartline says, “but now we have a place you can do research you can’t do other places.” That will help attracting grants — and graduate students.
“We did everything we could to get that equipment,” Trudnowski says. “And we have some amazing materials science faculty associated with that room.”
Hartline’s twin missions of research and graduate school are inextricably linked.
When she arrived seven years ago, she said, “I came with a vision and commitment to expand research and grant activity, and expand the graduate school, which was at that time on the order of 5 or 6 percent of total enrollment. We thought it should be 10 percent.
“It is 10 percent now, but that’s partly because the undergraduate enrollment has dropped. I think 12 to 15 percent is a good level for the graduate school to be.
“The vision is to provide really top-notch, high-quality graduate professional education experiences for students that help them advance their careers and contribute to the community and society, and we’ve been doing that.”
And Tech is poised to do a lot more of it.
Doctoral programs proposed
With its first Ph.D. program, in materials science, awarding its first doctorates in 2018, the university is poised to dramatically broaden its doctoral programs.
“We’ve done what we need to do,” to launch two more Ph.D. programs, Hartline said — one in earth science and engineering, and one in electrical engineering/power systems. Both proposed programs are awaiting blessing from OCHE and the Montana Board of Regents.
“The hope is approval by the Board of Regents at its September meeting, which is in Butte,” Hartline says. “We could have the programs available in the middle of the academic year, but certainly by the fall of 2020.”
The additional Ph.D. offerings would be a huge research draw. As an example, the materials science program is the beneficiary of a $15 million grant from the Army Research Laboratory for some of the aforementioned nanoscience work which would have been inconceivable without the materials science Ph.D.
A lot of external grant money is going to go to projects that require more in-depth research than students normally do in the course of attaining a master’s degree. “A master’s project is usually somewhere between a semester and a year,” Hartline says. “A doctoral project usually requires three to four years.”
Those projects, Hartline says, “are integrating theory with practice at the highest, state-of-the-art level. So we are aligned with Montana Tech’s vision and mission in that regard.”
At the same time, Hartline says, the graduate school is working hard to meet the demand for a variety of graduate programs, in a variety of ways.
“We’re offering professional distance programs. Maybe it’s an industrial hygienist who wants that next credential for professional advancement or more money. They will come to Butte for a week for an intensive laboratory instrumentation experience but other than that, the program can be presented online, at distance.”
“The technologies for delivery online are pretty amazing today,” Trudnowski says, and students are getting very comfortable with learning that way. It also allows Tech to collaborate with other schools in the system, and Tech professors who have a particular expertise can teach students at MSU and UM that way.
“The way a lot of distance programs work is that many practicing engineers, who are working and have family responsibilities, may only take one or two courses a semester,” but still make real progress toward an advanced degree, Hartline said.
Still, Tech’s size and on-campus atmosphere remain marketing pluses. “We offer smaller class sizes and that’s often a real competitive advantage for us,” Gammon notes.
“Undergraduates, from freshmen to seniors, can experience collaborating with faculty, taking advantage of mentoring and networking,” Hartline said.
Taking pressure off petroleum
Trudnowski said for his college’s part, he wants to make sure that mechanical, civil and electrical engineering programs are robust and helping take the pressure off the petroleum program.
“In 30 years we’ve had three big enrollment swings with petroleum, and that has hurt us,” he says. “We need to diversify, not allow petroleum to dominate to the degree it did when we had 500 petroleum majors.”
Trudnowski says he’s learned that the university does not need to focus on raising entrance requirements to educate successful engineers.
“I am committed to fostering the work ethic we’re known for,” he says, “But we have a real advantage with the quality of our students. So many of them come from rural Montana, from farm and ranch backgrounds, where work is second nature.
“Fully half of the kids we recruit are not calculus ready, but we get them there,” he said. “It’s not their fault” — they just haven’t been exposed to that instruction. “But we can deal with that,” he said.
Abbott points out that other programs are growing, even during the enrollment downturn.
“The student numbers are growing in biology, in mechanical and civil engineering, in industrial hygiene. Nursing is maxed out,” he said. “That’s a good problem to have.”
Gammon, just a year into his deanship, expects both his learning curve and the reshaping of the college to continue next year, as professors and departments not used to working with each other start in the new structure.
“In my college, we still need to learn how these departments fit together in this new designation,” Gammon said. “Department heads need to define who they are, what their priorities are, what they are doing. For instance, is biology going to introduce a master’s program or focus on undergraduate instruction? I think it’s the latter, by the way, but those are the sorts of decisions we need to be making, who we are and what we do. Those decisions do not succeed if they’re made top down. You’ve got to leverage the strengths of the faculty.”
There’s a great desire to be strategic, not just with student recruitment, but with retention. “Say we have a student who discovers that nursing is just not for them. What do we have to offer? How can we prepare them for another great career in health care?” Gammon said.
Highlands fills double role
That sort of agility doesn’t come without planning. And it doesn’t come without the partnership of Highlands, which is a huge difference-maker for the institution.
Dave Gurchiek loves to talk about the twin role Highlands fills. “We’re the university’s two-year college,” Gurchiek says, filling educational needs and working hand in hand with the institution’s other colleges, “but we’re also Butte’s two-year college.”
That means workforce training and development. It means providing career technical education, and offering career training certificates. Gurchiek is excited about innovative new programs. Like offering classes at the state prison so inmates can come out credential-ready with better job prospects. Like training certified nurse assistants with internships at local nursing homes.
“I don’t think a dean of a college like Highlands can go to Butte and say, “Here’s what we’ve got for you. Instead we have to listen to the community, and they will tell us what they need us to do. ‘Hey, what about training for a CDL?’ ‘Hey, what about a drone-operator certificate?’ ‘Hey what about one-week, two-week micro-credentials some employers are asking for?’ It’s about building relationships.”
“All of us have to be thinking much beyond the boundaries of the individual colleges,” Gammon says. “We know that if we just keep doing what we always have done, success is not guaranteed.”
“With greater understanding we can look for efficiencies. We are working with each other pretty closely.
“We’re in a pretty good place with the people we have here,” he added. “I’d echo what Dan says: The dedication, the quality of research and instruction here, along with the students, are just excellent.”