Rolf Groseth will retire on Saturday after three years as Montana State University Billings' chancellor and 37 years working in the Montana University System.
Groseth replaced retiring Chancellor Ron Sexton in July 2010 first in an interim role and then permanently that November.
Sexton was MSU Billings' first chancellor, starting the job in 1995 when Eastern Montana College became a part of MSU.
He came to Montana from Florida in 1977 for a job at Montana State University in Bozeman — he said "Florida was too hot for me and so I decided I wanted to try and get a job in the mountains and I was lucky enough to get it" — and soon after married his wife, Jaynee Drange Groseth, who retired last year as director of the MSU Alumni Association after 38 years in the Montana University System.
Groseth has held numerous positions, worked at three different Montana universities, including for 20 months as interim chancellor at MSU Northern in Havre, and watched myriad changes sweep across the system. Upon his retirement, he plans to move back to Bozeman.
The Gazette recently sat down with Groseth for a question-and-answer session to give him the chance to reflect on his time working in higher education in Montana in his own words.
You've explained why you came to Montana, but what's kept you here for nearly 40 years?
"I felt like I was able to progress in my career, I was able to make contributions and I really liked the size of all the campuses I've worked on. They have seemed to fit well with my abilities. I love being at a land-grant university, I love the tie to the people, statewide and on the Bozeman campus. Regionally...and then specifically with Billings and Yellowstone County and also eastern Montana, it’s been great fun. There’s been a lot to learn about Billings and how it works and what kind of community it is. I've enjoyed every aspect of that and getting to know people and trying to be helpful in things that go on in Billings."
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave within the Montana University System?
"What you hope is that you can make a difference in the lives of individual students and that you can establish an atmosphere that allows you to make a difference in the lives of lots of students by way of your staff and your faculty. Particularly, by way of a chancellor's role, you have the ability to have a lot of interaction with very few students, but what you're trying to do is establish a climate where students can prosper. Particularly with our campus, where not only traditional students, but nontraditional students, lots of different kinds of students, can prosper."
You mentioned making a difference to individual students. What is the importance of that face-to-face interaction?
"You can never replace the face to face. That’s always the most important and that’s why the most important people on our campus are the faculty who interact with those students on a day-to-day basis. That’s why students come here, that’s why the legislature establishes these institutions and that’s what the public expects of us — that day-to-day work in classrooms and laboratories and studios and, in the case of Billings, in our community settings."
How successful were you in accomplishing the goals you'd laid out for yourself when you were hired as MSUB chancellor?
"I think one of the things that I really wanted to focus on was continuing to have the campus believe in itself and its ability to make a difference in our community and I’m real happy with the climate that we have on campus, with the cooperation that we have among all of our colleges, among faculty and administration. I really worked hard to set up a governance system that works well. I feel good about where we are with the campus climate right now.
I wanted to create a better climate for Native American students and other minority students and I've been pretty happy with where we are with that. We've increased our numbers in Native Americans, not only in enrollment but in graduation. We still have a long way to go, I think, and that’ll be an ongoing process. I’m hopeful that my successors will continue the march on that.
One of the things I wanted to do was to kind of refocus on the excellence part of our access and excellence. We've done such a great job ... and I wanted to have some more focus on the excellence as well as the access.
This year we have our first Goldwater scholar. That’s a huge deal for our campus because it’s a signal to our community and to our prospective students that whatever level they come in at, we can meet the challenges and the support that’ll move them to the next level."
Can you share a few memories that sum up your experience with the MUS?
"I think some of the more gratifying moments are some students that I've invited to leave campuses and that I've gone out and retrieved a few years later to invite them to come back and finish. Those are fun, their individual stories. There are a few of them. It’s fun to see that people change over time, but they don’t change overnight. You need to go back out and find them again and make sure they do finish. Those are great. There are a few teachable moments that you get where you feel like students really walked out of your office and have a different perspective and a different outlook on their life."
Where do you see MSUB 10 years from now?
"I think we’ll be larger. I think we’ll be seen as a more important part of the community. We will have put out a generation of students that have had community service integrated into their curriculum. I think our grads will be making a really positive impact not only on the fields of study that have led to their degree, but also on their communities. We want them to be leaders in their disciplines and leaders in their communities."
What about higher education? How do you see it changing?
"In some ways, things don’t change very much. What we’re really focusing on is the interaction between students and faculty that lead to the degree. MSU Billings has been a leader for a long time in online education, so that aspect of it is changing and continuing to improve. One of the things that’s troubling is the increasing costs of education, which are naturally going up and the fact that our funding hasn't quite kept up from the state and so families are paying a greater share of the cost. You know, I think there’s always dialogue about what is public and how much of the benefit of higher education is public and how much is private. There’s certainly both, but I hope we can get the pendulum moving the other way, back toward the public seeing the public good in higher education."
What's next for you? Plan to pick up any new hobbies?
"I’m going to try to do not very much for about six months. I still have a few responsibilities with the Yellowstone Hall campaign. Then, you know, I don’t intend to be idle forever. I've already had some people talk to me, but I'm not really interested in taking on much new for a while. I want to be able to sit a little and reflect a bit and then get back into community volunteer work and trying to be helpful in the state.
I was given conga drums at my retirement, which I've never played but I've always wanted. So I’m going to be pursuing some lessons in that. I’m going to try and improve my golf game by playing a little more and try to get back into fly fishing, which I haven’t done in a long time."
What advice to you have for your successor at MSUB?
"Once again, we have a great faculty and great students here and the focus needs to be on them, on continuing to improve our relationships within the Billings community, Yellowstone County and particularly southeastern Montana. You know, the things that you would expect. We have some fundraising that we need to do for Yellowstone Hall and we need to work hard at that and then I’m hopeful that as we move into the next Legislature that we’ll be able to present ourselves in a way that will allow the legislature to support us."
Any parting thoughts as you prepare to retire?
"I was fortunate to work with some terrific presidents on the Bozeman campus that were great mentors to me, Bill Tietz and Mike Malone and Geoff Gamble and Waded Cruzado, so I've learned a great deal from the people I've worked for over the years. It’s really been a privilege. I never really anticipated that I might have the opportunity to be the leader of a campus. Not many people get the opportunity to do that in this world, so I consider it to be a real privilege and a real trust and I hope I've lived up to that and that I've learned enough from those great presidents on the Bozeman campus and the staff that have worked for me over the years."