Montana Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian has selected Les Cook, currently vice president for strategic university partnerships at Michigan Technological University, to serve as Montana Tech's next chancellor.
Reached for comment Friday, Cook said, "I'm pretty dang excited right now."
The selection comes just a week after the fourth of four chancellor finalists came to Butte to interview for the post.
Brock Tessmann, Montana University System deputy commissioner for Academics, Research and Student Affairs and the chair of Tech's search advisory committee, said Cook was not only "our first choice" to lead Tech going forward but also received the "highest level of support in searches that I've worked on."
Cook, who holds a doctorate in educational leadership from Brigham Young University, was competing against Paul Jagodzinski, dean of Northern Arizona University's College of the Environment, Forestry and Natural Sciences; John Barthell, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Central Oklahoma; and Sandy Stash, executive vice president for safety, operations and engineering, and external affairs at Tullow Oil.
Cook's campus visit came two weeks ago, on March 29, and Tessmann said he proved himself to be an "extremely well-rounded candidate."
"I think what was most outstanding about Dr. Cook's candidacy was that he so clearly puts students first in everything he does at Michigan Tech," Tessmann said. "And we know he's going to bring that mindset to Montana Tech."
Joe McClafferty, president of the Montana Tech Foundation and the university's vice chancellor for advancement and university relations, served on chancellor search committee and said he saw similar qualities in Cook.
"I think what really stood out about Les was how student-focused he was and student-centric," McClafferty said. "That's something that will fit real well at our school."
Tessmann also said that Cook's tenure at Michigan Tech shows that he can forge "industry partnerships" and work with a "full range of stakeholders that could pave an even brighter future for Tech."
Cook said Friday that he was eager to engage with everyone, in all kinds of contexts, from donor breakfasts to out-of-town alumni events to cafeteria lunches with prospective students and their parents.
"I think that I would characterize me as all-in," Cook said. "That's how I am. I don't wear down too easily."
While in Butte last month, Cook acknowledged he has never served as a department head, dean, or provost and that he has limited experience working directly with faculty as a result.
Despite that lack of experience, Tessmann said Cook "showed all the potential in the world" for working effectively with faculty in Butte.
Cook will be tasked with turning around what Tessmann called "enrollment and budget challenges at Tech" when he takes over on July 1.
According to recently released numbers, Tech's spring 2019 full-time enrollment is down almost 7 percent from a year ago and has dropped nearly 16 percent since 2015.
Cook told audiences in Butte last month that he has experience working to correct such problems, noting that when he arrived at Michigan Tech in 2003, the school was facing a $7-million shortfall and declining enrollments. He suggested that recruitment, marketing, expanded offerings, boosting research, and creating partnerships within and beyond Butte would be key to getting Tech back on track to growth.
"I think one of the things that we really have to think about is what markets we're in and where we aren't," Cook told The Montana Standard on Friday.
Tessmann said participation in the recent candidate forums and interviews were important to attracting Cook from Houghton, Michigan, where he has spent the last 16 years, to Montana Tech.
"Tech and the (Butte) community showed up and put their best foot forward, and I think that's one of the reasons we got our top choice," Tessmann said.
Cook agreed with that assessment Friday, saying he was "energized and excited about the possibilities that are there."
"Montana Tech is a definitely a gem in a rich vibrant community that's unique in itself," Cook said.
While noting the uniqueness of Tech and Butte, Cook also pointed out similarities between Michigan Tech, which has moved from a focus on mining engineering to a broader specialty in STEM fields, and Montana Tech.
"I'm so excited to be at an institution that's similar in so many ways and different in so many ways," Cook said.
As for the direction he will take in his new role, Cook said he hopes to find ways of "energizing the student life experience," of touting Tech's offerings more effectively, and of diversifying program offerings.
"You can't cut your way to greatness," Cook said.
Despite his energy and ideas, Cooks emphasized that he wants to start in Butte with an open mind about where Tech is now and where "where we need to be in 10 years or 15 years or 20 years."
"My thoughts are right now that I want to come in and get a sense of the lay of the land and obviously have good, hardy and robust conversations with our team," Cook said. "And as a group we'll figure out where we want to go."
Cook's contract is subject to approval from the Montana University System's Board of Regents, which is expected to confirm Cook's hiring at its May 21-22 meeting in Great Falls.
Cook will replace Chancellor Don Blackketter, who announced in October that his eight-year run leading the campus would come to an end in June.
"It's the perfect situation for us right now," said Cook, who will be moving to Butte with his wife, Stephanie. "I don't know if I can imagine having a more exciting opportunity at this point in my life."