On Friday morning, Sen. Steve Daines joined ConocoPhillips CEO Ryan Lance on stage in Montana Tech’s HPER Complex for a wide-ranging discussion focused on the intersection of their respective worlds: energy production and national politics.
While the primary subject of their public chat was the geopolitical implications of increased oil and gas production in the United States over the past 10 years or so, the Republican legislator and the head of one of the world’s largest oil companies also touched on everything from technology’s role in transforming Montana’s economy to Lance’s optimistic view of the long-term health of American oil production to the need for improved infrastructure to move oil and gas from reserves to where population centers are.
But as their talk spanned the nation and the world, Daines and Lance ultimately brought their discussion back to right where they sat: the campus of Montana Tech, which has been graduating petroleum engineers for nearly 70 years, including Lance, who earned his degree in 1984.
And as the petroleum industry changes — technologically, geographically, and otherwise — so is the campus, where Lance says a “bulk” of the industry’s engineers come from, here in Butte. (See related story for news about another of these changes.)
Evidence of that change could be found across the street from the HPER Complex, where the massive new Student Success Center is taking shape and where Lance, Daines, and a large contingent from the discussion audience headed after their talk was over.
Entering through plywood doors and moving through hallways of unfinished drywall, the group explored the three-story building that will include a 166-bed dormitory as well as an entire floor devoted to student collaboration, socializing, and study.
While much work remains to be done on the SSC, which is slated to be complete this February, its potential was evident to Lance, who called it “a game-changer for this school.”
And that, Lance says, is exactly what it was designed to be.
According to Lance, the seed of the building he toured Friday morning was planted some 12 years ago when “a group of about five of us sat down and said, ‘The school’s kind of declining a little bit, and it’s time to put up or shut up.’”
For Lance, putting up to help Tech has come in tangible forms, including a $1 million donation he and his wife made toward the project in 2015 and more broadly with his ability to help bring attention, interest, and dollars from fellow Tech alums and members of the energy industry, a number of whom were on hand Friday.
While infusions of cash from the industry have been key to making the SSC a reality, Lance said Tech Chancellor Don Blackketter was the person who first imagined it as a possibility.
“Don had a vision, and we all said we gotta go execute it,” Lance said.
As for Blacketter himself, Friday’s tour was also his first time inside the new building, and he was already thinking about the students who will someday occupy it.
“Students get away from home,” he said, “and this particular room will help them feel like this is their living room on campus.”
Daines praised what he found in Butte while keeping an eye on Washington D.C.
“I love (Tech’s) faculty, the culture, the grit, and the focus on solutions,” Daines said. “We could use a lot more of that in Washington.”
While the mood was celebratory as folks made their way through the building, Lance noted that Tech isn’t done becoming the school he hopes it will be.
Now that the SSC is moving toward completion, Lance said Friday that it’s time for the school to move its “focus” from developing campus facilities to attracting new and highly qualified faculty and students, boosting its competitiveness in the highly globalized environment that he and Daines had discussed on stage.
“We’ve got more to do,” Lance said. “And that’s what we’re determined to do.”