Montana Tech sign

Montana Tech of the University of Montana will likely soon be no more.

No, the university perched on Butte’s West Side isn’t going anywhere, but it is on the brink of some potentially seismic shifts, including a possible change of name.

After nearly a year of consideration, the university is nearing a decision about whether it will recommend to the Montana University System’s Board of Regents that it be known officially as Montana Technological University, Montana University of Science and Technology or Montana University of Science, Engineering and Technology.

The recommendation to select a new name from this short list comes from Montana Tech’s Work Group for Institutional Realignment for Excellence — or WIRE, as it is commonly known.

A 13-member committee that includes faculty, staff and administrators, WIRE was formed last spring, in response to the Board of Regents designating the university a special focus four-year university — the only such institution in the 16-school Montana University System.

For a school that was previously classified as a four-year regional university — a class that includes the University of Montana Western and Montana State University-Billings — the special-focus tag signaled a big opportunity for the university to rethink its place both within the state and well beyond its borders.

But what exactly is Montana Tech’s special focus? That wasn’t dictated by the regents, says Dan Trudnowski, dean of Montana Tech’s School of Mines and Engineering and co-chair of the WIRE committee.

“They designated us special focus but then they didn’t tell us what our special focus is,” Trudnowski says. “They basically said, ‘You tell us.’ And we came back and said our special focus is science and engineering. Everything we do will somehow correlate into science and engineering.”

While this doesn’t signal a fundamental change in the longtime mining and engineering school’s academic emphasis, the formalization of the school’s focus has led administrators to reconsider how everything the school does now — and could do, in the future — relates to science and engineering.

In weekly meetings that have included Montana Tech Chancellor Don Blackketter, the WIRE committee has spent the past year looking at everything from student recruitment to faculty salaries to the degrees being offered to departmental organization, all in an effort to find ways to enhance how the university is arranged and focused.

Last month, at a meeting in Dillon, Blackketter and members of WIRE presented the committee’s findings to the Board of Regents, making a series of four overarching recommendations for how the school should change to meet the demands of its Special Focus status.

The first of these recommendations called for Montana Tech to become “a premier Science and Engineering institution.” To do so, WIRE set a target for half of all graduates to be from engineering programs and for the majority of the school’s programs to be “anchored in the sciences.” In order to achieve these ratios, the committee called for the school to revamp its recruitment and admissions processes to focus on “students with strong motivation, intellectual curiosity, creativity and a determination to succeed.”

“One of the things that we’ve talked about is maybe we don’t need test scores,” says Carrie Vath, Montana Tech’s associate vice chancellor of Enrollment Management and dean of students. “Maybe we’re looking at grit.”

A second recommendation called for Tech to “have a nationally competitive applied research culture.” To pursue this goal, WIRE members outlined a plan for the school to create a small number of research centers and to expand its graduate programs. 

WIRE’s third recommendation concerned the school’s curricula, which the committee says should focus on solving real-world problems through interdisciplinary, team-based research, internship and study.

Finally, WIRE recommended the university rethink the organizational structure that exists between the School of Mines and Engineering, the College of Letters, Sciences and Professional Studies, the Graduate School and Highlands College.    

To reflect these ambitious aims, the WIRE committee also broached the idea of a new institutional name to the Board of Regents. 

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According to Trudnowski, the subject of the university’s name has been on WIRE’s agenda “since day one” but they didn’t start looking outside the committee for insight until September, when the committee began surveying faculty, staff, alumni and industry professionals. Through that process, WIRE came up with several criteria for the new name, Trudnowski says.

For one thing, they wanted to get rid of the phrase “of the University of Montana,” which Blackketter says “reflects a regional scope” that the school wants to move beyond. However, the committee also wanted to ensure the term “university” remained, to reflect the school’s ambitions to serve both undergraduates and, increasingly, graduate students.

By emphasizing the school’s status as a university and its focus on engineering, science and technology, committee members also believe a new name will help improve the institution’s appeal to out-of-state students, who are key to increasing enrollment during a time when it’s declining.  

But while the committee is eager for the name to reflect the many institutional changes they are pursuing, they also wanted one thing to remain the same: the nickname “Montana Tech.”

Giving the school a new official name that can still be shortened to “Montana Tech” will allow the school to maintain its strong brand recognition in Montana and spare it the high cost of rebranding, Trudnowski says.

Now that they have narrowed down their list of names to three, Blackketter is confident the school will make the right choice: “In some ways, I don’t know if we can make a mistake.”

Despite his confidence that the changes coming to Montana Tech are for the best, he acknowledges that the proposed changes have made some members of the university’s faculty “nervous,” especially those in fields that are not directly related to science or engineering.

Trudnowski says WIRE’s efforts to re-focus the institution on engineering and the sciences have led some faculty to wonder, “Is my program gonna be here, if it’s not truly aligned?”

But according to Trudnowski, “WIRE is not getting down into hand-picking programs. We’re building a vision. Certainly, programs have got to serve our focus. There’s a lot of ways of doing that, besides being a pure science or engineering program. Even some of our engineering programs are going to change over time.”

During WIRE’s presentation to the Board of Regents last month, Vath delivered a similar message to concerned faculty: “We’re saying, ‘We’re not leaving anyone behind, but get on board and help this be a driver to not only improve your programs but to, again, think about the new possibilities with this designation.’”

Ultimately, Blackketter says, Montana Tech’s ambitious efforts at change come down to a question of risk versus reward: “If you don’t adapt and change, you’re not going to be competitive.”

Blackketter and Trudnowski say the implications for Montana Tech remaining competitive extend beyond the campus’ boundaries.

“In the state of Montana, the universities deliver a really efficient, good undergraduate education. But we are behind in research and graduate [education],” Trudnowski says. “And it’s reflected in not much cottage industry, not much high tech industry in our state. … Our university system is not designed to be innovators, and to me this is an opportunity to have at least one campus that can say, ‘We’re going to be innovators. We’re going to be the science, engineering [school] and really try to help the state.’ And maybe in 10 years there will be some really beautiful cottage industries around this town. Those things can happen.”

As Montana Tech charts its ambitious course forward, it is seeking input from those within and outside the university community. To that end, WIRE will begin a series of public forums today on campus on the subject of the university’s name change over the next few weeks. The first of these will be held this afternoon, at 5, in the Copper Lounge in Montana Tech’s Student Union Building. Forums will also be held in the Copper Lounge April 17 at 5 and April 22 at 3. Comments can also be sent to wire@mtech.edu.

Once a new name has been decided upon, administrators will present their recommendation to the Board of Regents, perhaps as soon as their next meeting, May 23-24.

In an email, Montana Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian expressed his openness to considering what WIRE proposes.

“Tech has been approved as a special focus institution," Commissioner Christian said. "I am open to the ideas and recommendations the WIRE group is considering in regards to potentially proposing a new name for the institution, through our System process, especially if the group feels strongly that a name change would further enhance and serve the purpose of this special focus."

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