Rocky seeks perfection with new class of vice presidents

2014-08-09T00:15:00Z 2014-09-12T23:47:50Z Rocky seeks perfection with new class of vice presidentsBy SUSAN OLP solp@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette
August 09, 2014 12:15 am  • 

When Rocky Mountain College begins its fall semester later this month, the new students won’t be the only fresh faces on campus.

Several new top college administrators, all of them vice presidents, have been hired to join President Bob Wilmouth’s cabinet.

The new hires include:

— Steve Gammon, academic vice president. Former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Eastern Oregon University in LeGrande, he started June 30.

— John Clayton, vice president for enrollment services. Previously the dean of admissions at Newman University in Wichita, Kan., he began at Rocky on June 16.

— Karla Mongeon-Stewart, chief financial officer. Mongeon-Stewart most recently served as the assistant vice president for academic affairs at the University of Texas at Brownsville, and her tenure began April 28.

— Bruce Parker, athletic director. Formerly the AD at Carroll College in Helena, Parker began June 24.

They join Kelly Edwards, former vice president for enrollment services at Rocky, who has been in her new role as vice president for institutional advancement for nearly a year; and Brad Nason, vice president and dean for student life.

“We have over 100 years of experience in higher ed in the different areas among the people who sit at this table,” said Wilmouth, speaking of the long wooden table in his office where of the cabinet meetings take place.

Wilmouth said that when the former administrators left for various reasons, it was the perfect time to do a national search for replacements.

“In my previous life as a cardiac surgeon, I really valued expertise. I had to,” he said. “I needed people that worked with me to be on their game at all times.”

That’s what he looked for in his new team. From the start of his tenure as president of Rocky 18 months ago, Wilmouth has preached a message of perfection and accountability at the four-year liberal arts college.

“We’re going from very, very good to great,” Wilmouth said. “In order to do that, we have to have the right people on the bus.”

Accountability, he said, has to go both ways. Wilmouth holds himself accountable to the faculty, staff and students, and he emphasizes mutual respect.

“We have to work together,” he said. “It’s a team concept.”

Wilmouth headed the college’s physician assistant master’s program before being appointed interim president in January 2013. He was named permanently to the post that April.

For the first time in five years, the college has reached its annual giving goal. Regarding enrollment, the school is right on target, Wilmouth said, although exact numbers aren’t nailed down for the fall semester.

His two top priorities as president are keeping students at Rocky and keeping them safe. A safety initiative has included an evaluation by the Billings Police Department to make sure the necessary precautions and procedures are in place.

“We can’t just say ‘yeah, we’re probably a safe campus,’ ” Wilmouth said. “We have to prove it, gather data. It’s No. 1 on the agenda for the cabinet every week.”

As for retention, it touches on multiple areas at Rocky, he said.

“From the academic experience to the student experience to facilities to customer services, financially and then athletics, everybody has got to be perfect,” Wilmouth said. “And they all are the priority because we owe that, providing that value, to the students.”

Recruitment and retention both are priorities for Clayton, an 18-year veteran in higher education. Having come from a private four-year college, Clayton is familiar with some of the challenges Rocky faces, including a nationwide decline in the number of high school students.

“With fewer students who have more options, that’s a challenge for us as an institution,” he said. To reach those students, “we have to be more versed in technology and living in the world they live in.”

Rocky also faces issues of perception in regard to its affordability, Clayton said. The perception that the private college is too expensive leads some people not to consider it as an option.

“We have to work hard to show families the affordability,” he said. “We may have a higher sticker price, but what we do is make it more affordable.”

Rocky is split fairly evenly between students from within Montana and those who come from out of the state or out of the country, Clayton said. Rocky is investigating how to recruit more international students, but he recognizes there are challenges with that.

“If you bring them in, you have to be able to support those students and their needs,” he said.

Clayton has spent his first few weeks getting to know the campus and the people. He is looking forward to the weeks and months ahead and to working with the cabinet led by Wilmouth.

“What the president will bring to the table is his enthusiasm, and that is very exciting and something I could really rally behind,” Clayton said.

Nason, Rocky’s longest-serving administrator, oversees the work of people who are responsible for almost everything outside of the classroom. That includes housing, counseling, career services, campus ministry, health and food services, the bookstore and student government.

Nason has been a senior leadership position at Rocky since 1987. He graduated from the college in 1983, worked in a number of jobs on campus, then left for a little more than a year. That’s when then-President Arthur DeRosier invited him back to work in the post he still holds today.

On staff for more than three decades, Nason has seen a lot of changes. During his first years, the college functioned “quite literally from month to month, or at least semester to semester,” he said.

Student enrollment was a struggle, and so were the finances. Under DeRosier’s leadership, that began to turn around, but it’s been a long process, Nason said.

In the past, most new administrators came from within the college. While that wasn’t a bad thing, Nason thinks recruiting from outside has its advantages.

“They all come with fresh new ideas, and there’s great energy in the room because there’s so many ideas going around,” he said.

As for Wilmouth’s penchant for talking in terms of perfection, Nason believes that’s a good thing. He likens it to a sports team that wouldn’t set a season goal of winning seven out of 10 games.

“You want to win 10,” Nason said. “That’s the mentality that Bob brings: Don’t set your goal less than 100 percent. Let’s shoot for perfection, and if we don’t get there, we’ll deal with where we end up.”

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