In an interview, Dr. Robert Wilmouth, president of Rocky Mountain College, quickly gets the formalities out of the way.
“Call me Bob,” he says, smiling and extending his hand. Then he sits down on a leather couch in the great room at Prescott Hall, the building where his office
Wilmouth, 56, a longtime Billings cardiovascular surgeon, headed Rocky’s physician assistant master’s program before becoming interim president on Jan. 1. He was named permanently to the post in April.
Five months into the job, Wilmouth is facing his first challenge, a slight decrease in Rocky’s enrollment this fall. He doesn’t shy away from talking about it.
“I want to be transparent,” he said. “Actions speak louder than words.”
Enrollment is down about 61 students from a year ago, to just under 1,000 students. That’s after about three years of growth, Wilmouth said, and it’s following a national trend of college enrollment declines.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, higher education enrollment in fall 2012 plunged by nearly half a million from a year earlier, which includes both graduate and undergraduate enrollment.
In 2012, there were 19.9 million postsecondary students, the Census Bureau said, with 5.8 million enrolled in two-year colleges, 10.4 million in four-year colleges and 3.8 million in graduate school.
Rocky has gotten a good grade among its own graduates, Wilmouth said.
Overwhelmingly in his conversations with alumni, Wilmouth has heard how much the former students loved their education and the sense of community on campus.
He sees the enrollment decrease as a challenge.
“It gives us a chance, an opportunity to look at everything we’re doing,” he said. “Our vision collectively as an institution is to get better in every facet and achieve perfection.”
For Wilmouth, the drive toward perfection comes from his years as a surgeon, where, to him, 98 or 99 percent wasn’t acceptable. As a surgeon, his goal was 100 percent success.
“You can’t have any errors or complications,” he said. “I think that’s the way we should be here.”
Wilmouth talks about a need for more accountability, attention to detail and communication, although he’s already seen improvement in those areas since he started. Wilmouth is quick to say it’s a reciprocal thing — that he is equally responsible for taking the college to the next step.
“My job is to make sure everybody is going in the same direction,” Wilmouth said. “I think that in every aspect, no matter what we do. We have to continually get better.”
He brings up the concept of teamwork often. He calls teamwork “a model of success, no matter where you go.”
“People who show up every day asking ‘what can I do to help our noble purpose’ and then maybe take that a step further and say ‘what can I do to help the person next to me,’ ” help create a happy environment and a good team, he said.
Along with his duties as president, Wilmouth continues to teach in the physician assistant program, as well as at the college.
He likes interacting with students and encouraging them to communicate and think creatively.
He also stresses accountability on that level. If a student doesn’t show up and doesn’t have an excuse, he’ll call the student and find out why.
Wilmouth has felt welcomed by students and staff. He respects and enjoys meeting with the faculty, as well.
“I don’t necessarily have to be the smartest person in the room, I enjoy being around smart people,” he said. “They’ve embraced me and they’ve been wonderful to work with and I appreciate them.”
Wilmouth also has spent time out in the community, promoting the college.
He sees fundraising as a crucial part of his job, and he hopes to engage the entire campus in that initiative.
“I certainly hope, at the end of the day, we see some results in that area,” Wilmouth said.
It’s one of the measurable outcomes he will keep an eye on, but not the only one.
“If education gets better individually, if the students do better when they graduate, if the grounds look perfect, if the facilities are functioning well, if enrollment increases and the Advancement Department is able to bring in some money, those are all successes,” Wilmouth said. “And that will all happen. I’m confident of it.”