MISSOULA -- Clayton Christian, the state's new commissioner of higher education, stressed the importance of a unified Montana University System at a Missoula forum on Wednesday.
Stagnant state support for Montana's colleges and universities means efficiency needs to increase, he said at the University of Montana. That means greater attention to reducing program duplication, helping students graduate faster and approaching the 2013 Legislature with a unified, system-wide message.
The university system's biggest failure in the last session was the lack of a cohesive message, he said. Christian promised that, heading into the next legislative session, faculty, staff and students will promote a unified front.
About 45 people turned out for Wednesday's public forum. Many faculty members touched on the importance of staff, greater investments in university employees and the need to convince Montanans -- especially lawmakers -- of the importance of higher education in the state.
"There's not a great answer, but it's a problem," Christian said. "It's a terrible shame we aren't valuing education to the level we need to."
Christian didn't just talk; he also listened and offered feedback.
"Can we as a system have a more comprehensive public relations approach?" asked Reed Humphrey, chairman of the physical therapy department.
"I'm not the first person to say we need to tell a better story. It seems to me as though most individuals, whenever they need professional help, they interact with someone with a college degree."
Christian, who is from Missoula, has traveled to other campuses around the state, holding open listening sessions since becoming the new commissioner of higher education. The top question that he's gotten so far is what he plans to change as commissioner after having served as chairman of the Board of Regents.
His answer: continuity.
With the turnover among the Board of Regents recently and new chancellors and presidents at many of the state's universities and colleges, Christian sees his role as continuing the work that the board and the university system has already begun. That includes work on the university system's affordability and accessibility efforts, driving economic development and creating efficiencies in the system wherever possible.
One initiative may include the university system coordinating its information technology efforts. Right now, a student at UM who wants to take an online course from Montana State University has to re-register as an MSU student. That doesn't make it easier for students to take needed classes and graduate on time, he said.
College is not going to get cheaper, but Montana can make it easier for students to graduate more quickly with dual enrollment programs, emphasizing college preparedness and by offering online courses.