Mountainside Chats

A professor once described the job of university president as “a very important cheerleader.” The analogy was not meant to be disparaging or diminutive, and for lack of metaphor with less-frivolous connotations, the categorization is quite apt. President Waded Cruzado’s football team is the university; her stadium is everywhere, and her half-time shows are each speech, press conference and Monday Morning Memo. Her job is to inspire passion, enthusiasm and love for Montana State, to foster the vim of the students, staff, faculty, alumni and the community.

Speaking in her office the afternoon after the announcement of Norm Asbjornson’s $50 million gift to the College of Engineering, she was still beaming from the morning’s excitement. Cruzado explained, “It has been very difficult for me today to walk on ground,” and sought every opportunity to explain her philosophies on higher education in terms of Asbjornson’s contribution. That is part of her job as head cheerleader: to laud the accomplishments of the institution and the virtues of the community she represents and to infect others with enthusiasm.

Quality

A large section in MSU’s Strategic Plan is dedicated to “Quality Enhancements,” the emphasis of which is “sustaining and enhancing the quality of our academic offerings … retention and recruitment of high quality, dedicated faculty, staff and administrators; and sustaining and enhancing the quality of our physical and technological infrastructure.” When asked to define quality, Cruzado was thoughtful and deliberate.

“That’s a very complicated question,” Cruzado said, “Because universities are living organisms … They are not factories in which we can measure gadgets. There are a number of things we can measure, but perhaps some of the most important components of the educational mission defy or resist measurement.”

Instead, Cruzado explained, “I believe the university is a combustion engine. So you take that student … and over the time in which he or she is with us, something magical happens inside, right? I transformation occurs. There is value added.”

The value, she says, is observable in people like Jake Jabs and Norm Asbjornson. From humble beginnings, they both attended MSU and went on to become very successful. However, this success is not only financial success, Cruzado was sure to explain: “They were leaders. They influenced opinion; they brought people along with them, and I would say that they envisioned a bigger and brighter futures.”

“No graduate needs to give, but the additional element of quality in those individuals and others is that they never forgot their roots and then they wanted to give back. All those are elements of quality.”

Another metric for quality, as determined by the state and pursued by the administration, is a performance-based student retention. “The state is saying if you are an institution of quality, then what that means is that not only you attract more students, but then you make an effort in retaining the students that you have,” said Cruzado, regarding the $2.2 million awarded to Montana State University by the Montana legislature for increasing retention rates 1.7 percent in 2013.

Yet enrollment, retention and graduation are not everything, Cruzado said. “There is a larger conversation happening through the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education … We want to make sure we strike a fine balance … Can the [performance-based] formula be mission specific? If we are a research university, are there other elements that also need to be taken into consideration? This is an ongoing conversation, but a very important conversation.”

One of the markers of quality faculty is their ability to inspire, according to Cruzado. “Here’s the phrase that I always use. I say that good teachers teach, but great teachers inspire, right? So a wonderful faculty member is that individual who exemplifies the institutional mission. That means that person, every day, aspires to excellence — excellence in teaching, excellence in research, and excellence in service and outreach … There are countless examples of faculty who just shine.”

“At the end of the day, the way in which I can recognize one of those faculty members is when one of the students in the classroom looks at him or her and says, ‘I want to be like like him.’ ‘I want to shine like her.’ And that individual also commands that same sense of inspiration and respect from their peers.”

The core of Montana State’s inspiration, according to Cruzado, comes from the spirit the the Morrill Act, the 1862 legislation establishing land grant universities, including MSU.

Cruzado brings up the Land Grant mission like vegan friends brings up veganism. “You have heard me say this a lot, but I will repeat it again,” she begins. “The Morrill Act is absolutely revolutionary, even for todays standards. Universities … are for everybody. It’s a very democratizing concept … It’s quite powerful when you think about the history of the Land Grant institutions. Talk about inspiration.”

“If we can inspire one student to aim higher, to have higher aspirations, to believe in his or her talents, in a way and manner that he or she had never before imagined, then we have given them a quality education. The diploma might say a date, but [education] is a tool that never expires.”

Accountability

The students, aiming to earn their diplomas, are not the only stakeholders in MSU’s quality. Cruzado begins her speeches with “Welcome to your university!” It is the students’ university, but also the faculty’s university, the staff and administrators’ university, the state’s university and as she said near the beginning of the interview, “This is the donors’ university!” As the hub between the various parties involved in the university, Cruzado expounded upon her role of an intermediary.

Cruzado explained that Montana State is privileged to have a concordant community where conflicts of interest rarely rear their heads. “I always like to say that universities attract very special people. They attract people who are dreamers and visionaries … Irrespective of whether they are faculty or students or alums, they are people that see and say things in new and different ways. So in that sense, I have not found any kind of conflict whatsoever [between stakeholders], because all of us are convinced that we are pushing behind the same goals and ideals, which is not only education in the abstract; it’s the building of a better world. So there is not conflict. On the contrary, there is a great commonality of aspirations in the university.”

She describes her accountability practically. “Think about it in terms of our budget,” she explained. “About a third comes from the state, about a third comes from tuition and about a third comes from grants and contracts. We are accountable to the taxpayers of the state of Montana, we are accountable to the students … and we are also accountable to those agencies, to those foundations, who believed in our promise.”

“It’s a great balance, and the art of it is: how can you make one of those sides help and enrich and expand the other two?”

“The key is the word accountability, being very very responsible. It’s a very important obligation we have … There are so many people who believe in what we do … when you have that trust, you guard it, you treasure it, because it’s so special.”

Final Thoughts

Although Cruzado communicates clearly, consistently, Cruzado does not rehearse her comments; she doesn’t have to. She lives and breathes them. She ends many of her sentences with an inquisitive “right?” making sure her listeners understand, still an educator at heart. She does not have to don rose-colored glasses: the idea of a challenge animates her — she doesn’t just spin every problem as an opportunity: that seems to be the way she sees them. Cruzado articulates her deeply felt passion through the words of the Morrill Act and the Strategic Plan and through the stories of MSU’s students and alumnus, hoping to translate her beliefs to the rest of the MSU community.