Bullock tours MSUB, sees facility needs firsthand

2013-02-07T16:11:00Z 2013-02-08T08:06:05Z Bullock tours MSUB, sees facility needs firsthandBy ROB ROGERS rrogers@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

In the crowded research lab at Montana State University Billings, the message was implicit. Never mind Gov. Steve Bullock, he's just looking around.

The newly elected governor toured MSUB's Science Building on Thursday to see for himself the aging facility, the outdated laboratories and classrooms and the cracked floors and walls. 

"It's time to invest in higher education," Bullock said as he looked around.

Bullock supports a bonding bill in the Legislature that would direct about $76 million to the state's university system, which would include major upgrades to MSUB's Science Building.

Original construction on the building was finished in 1947. And in many places it shows. 

"It doesn't work now for the science we're trying to teach," said associate professor Kurt Toenjes. 

Toenjes teaches molecular biology. In 2010, working alongside students and a colleague, professor David Butler, he successfully secured two patents — a first for MSUB. The patents are related to fungal research that showed new ways to control yeast growth and treat fungal infections like thrush.

The science that professors and students work on is real, and in many cases it's cutting-edge. The college needs a building that reflects that work and that will aid in teaching it, said student Keith Yeager.

Better students will come to MSUB and more graduates will stay in Montana if the college can improve its facilities and its offerings, he said.

Walking through the building, Bullock saw classrooms and labs with equipment that was decades old. He heard about a malfunctioning sprinkler on the third floor that poured water down two floors and flooded the basement. 

At one point, faculty members joked about the college buying 40-year-old used desks for one lab as "quite the upgrade."

Through it all, Bullock listened and looked, stopping to talk to students and instructors. He appeared to be affected by what he saw. 

"The fact that we're using a 1947 building trying to give students a 21st-century education is unfortunate," Bullock said. 

Basic biology is a required class, so the building is used by nearly every MSUB student through the course a school year — "800-some-odd students," Toenjes said. 

Most of them spend a good amount of time in the building's only remodeled lecture hall, the last place on Bullock's tour of the building. The room was slick and modern, with outlets on top of the desks for laptops and a modern fire projection system.

"Everybody wants to be in here," Toenjes said. 

Bullock spoke to the group about his bonding bill and how it would help to modernize facilities like the Science Building all over Montana. The state needs to invest in education, he said.  

"It's not just Billings," he said. "It's across the state."

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