MSU Billings looks toward 2011 Legislature

2010-12-27T00:05:00Z 2014-08-25T08:37:01Z MSU Billings looks toward 2011 LegislatureBy MARY PICKETT Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
December 27, 2010 12:05 am  • 

The Montana State University Billings Science Building is not aging gracefully.

It was built in 1947 and "looks like it," said Rolf Groseth, MSU Billings chancellor.

That year, Eastern Montana Normal School, as it was called, had about 400 students. MSU Billings now has more than 5,000 students.

Classes and labs in the Science Building are too small, infrastructure is shabby and some equipment is outdated. When up-to-date instruments are acquired, it's hard to find a place where they can operate properly.

A $14.75 million renovation and expansion project has been on the Montana Board of Regents list of major construction projects for several years.

It has moved up to the number two spot, behind a $32.5 million new building for the University of Montana College of Technology in Missoula.

But, because funding for those projects wasn't included in Gov. Brian Schweitzer's proposed budget, a separate bonding bill would be required to provide the financing.The Science Building houses biology, chemistry, physics, earth sciences and geography programs; research and teaching labs; and classrooms.

Stanley Wiatr, head of the Department of Biological and Physical Sciences who has taught on campus for more than 30 years, is familiar with the building's shortcomings.

Although some updates have been made over the years, big problems remain.

As many as 36 students routinely squeeze into each of Wiatr's freshman biology labs. Twenty students would be a more ideal class size.

Paint peels from pipes and ceilings.

Faculty members have ripped their pants on laminate separating from lab tables that date from the 1940s.

Thirty-year-old classroom chairs are so rickety that some break.

In some labs, extension cords are pulled down from the ceiling to power lab equipment.

When the department bought an electron microscope with student fees, only one place in the building could be found that was free enough from vibration and other interference where the microscope could function correctly.

Vibration in some labs is so bad that students have difficulty looking at anything through microscopes.

The building has an elevator, but a mid-floor level still has to be reached by stairs.

The current building also doesn't do justice to the considerable talents of the university's faculty teaching there, Groseth said.

An up-to-date facility will help students be more competitive in the job market when they graduate, Wiatr said.

MSU Billings students go on to nursing, medical, dental and graduate schools, as well as jobs in industry.

The new Health Sciences Building at the MSU Billings College of Technology campus doesn't solve the problem because that building largely is dedicated to its own growing programs, Wiatr said.

It will be up to the Montana Legislature to decide if it will appropriate money for building programs such as the Science Building on the Billings campus.

Senate Minority Leader Carol Williams, D-Missoula, is working on drafting a bonding bill for the UM COT project.

That could open the door to negotiations between legislators from Billings and Missoula to support each other's projects.

"When a bill like that is introduced, the delegations start talking," Groseth said. "We've spoken to our (Billings) delegation, and they understand that our building is number two on the list."

The Science Building isn't the only structure on the campus on regents' list of priorities.

A $1.6 million project for the university library is number three on the regent's deferred-maintenance list. Those projects weren't included in the governor's budget either and would need a funding bill, too.

That project would install the library's automatic fire alarm and sprinkler systems, modernize a large auditorium-lecture hall and bring the elevator up to code.

The library building is valued at $11.5 million and has $14 million worth of materials but has an outdated fire alarm system.

Higher education officials will keep a close watch on House Bill 2, which funds state agencies including the university system, Groseth said. Schweitzer's budget proposes a 5 percent increase for the Montana University System budget.

"We feel we are being treated fairly in the governor's budget and will support it," Groseth said.

After the legislative session is over in late April, the Montana Board of Regents will decide what each campus receives.

MSU Billings' core budget this year is nearly $40.8 million. About half of that comes from the state and half from tuition and fees.

Another bill of interest to MSU Billings is one that proposes a 1 percent pay increase for state employees, including university personnel, for 2012 and a 3 percent increase for 2013.

Any tuition increase also will be decided after the session ends and would be influenced by how much money the Legislature allocates.

"For our students, we're hoping that the Legislature will come close to the governor's proposed budget" because that would mitigate any tuition increases, Groseth said.

MSU Billings tuition has been frozen for the last two years, and most salaries have been frozen for the last four years.

Asked about the fate of higher-education funding in a Republican-dominated Legislature, Groseth said that Republicans always have been interested in the long-term investment of education.

"All legislators understand our educational system, K-12 through higher education, is a powerful institution for out national competitiveness," he said.

Groseth thinks that the financial realities of the state and country struggling to get out of a deep recession will have a bigger effect on how legislators fund programs than the political makeup of the Legislature.


Contact Mary Pickett at or 657-1262.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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