Mark Nook doesn't know much about the inner workings of Montana State University Billings.
He's not familiar with the fine details of the budget of Montana's third-largest university. He doesn't know too many people in the community.
He'll be the first to tell you all of those things, but also the first to say they won't be the case for too long.
"Being new and not knowing the institution and its place in the community it is located in, I've got to really understand this university and its place in the state so that I can put together a vision for its new place in the state," he said.
Nook, 56, was hired on May 13 to head up MSUB as its new chancellor, replacing Rolf Groseth, who retired two weeks earlier after nearly 40 years working in the Montana University System.
He comes to Billings from the 181,000-student University of Wisconsin System, where he's served as senior vice president of academic and student affairs since 2012, and with nearly 30 years' worth of experience working in higher education.
In the new role an in addition to the day-to-day manegerial duties, he'll be expected to continue positive momentum gained over the last few years while boosting enrollment and retention and working with the Montana University System to reach Gov. Steve Bullock's stated goal of increasing the number of Montanans with a post-secondary certificate from 40 percent to 60.
An 18-person search committee formed shortly after Groseth announced in January he'd retire and with the help of R.H. Perry and Associates, a Washington-based firm specializing in higher education searches, initially identified about 60 candidates before narrowing that list to four.
As one of those finalists, Nook's experience and success in a large system, as well as his enthusiasm at the prospect of leading a university such as MSUB, stood out to the committee and Montana State University President Waded Cruzado, who had final say in offering him the job.
"I was very impressed by his experience in a very large system and I was very impressed by his academic background and the way he was able to move forward some similar initiatives we have been discussing in the Montana University System," Cruzado said. "It was evident to me that his resume and his life experiences matched point-to-point the opportunities that MSUB has looking into the future."
Nook has made it very clear that his biggest challenge coming into the job isn't a specific one facing MSUB, but his own task of learning about the school and Billings.
He plans to hit the ground running in that regard and, even though he doesn't officially start until July 1, Nook attended the MUS Board of Regents meeting at MSU Northern in Havre in late May in an effort to learn about the issues facing the system as a whole.
"I appointed him less than 10 days ago and the fact that he and his wife, Cheryl, are here already for the regents' meeting shows just how dedicated he already is to this job," Cruzado said.
That's not, however, to say there aren't other issues Nook must tackle early on in his tenure.
For starters, enrollment is always front and center. In the fall 2013, MSUB saw an enrollment of fewer than 5,000 students for the the first time in five years and Montana is facing a temporary decline in high school junior- and senior-aged students who normally boost enrollment.
Nook said that while he has not yet built a specific plan to address enrollment, he said that retention and reaching previously underserved student populations can play an important role in those efforts.
While working at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where he worked from 2007 to 2011 and served as provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs as well as interim chancellor for a year, Nook faced a similar problem and managed to address it successfully through a group staff effort.
"We realized we weren't where we should be so we just doubled down on our efforts," he said. "We asked where these students that are leaving are going — are they transferring? — and the need to understand that it’s happening. You need to sit down with academic and student affairs leaders on how to get everybody to realize that this is everybody’s responsibility."
Cruzado said the MUS as a whole hasn't been performing, enrollment-wise, as well as she'd like over the past five years. Nook helped spearhead efforts within the UW system to bring in competency-based education as well as finding ways for students to get equivalent credit for certain real-world experiences, which she said will help him in Billings.
"Mark has been involved in that conversation for a long time and I'm sure that he will bring that experience to MSUB," she said.
That also lines up with the governor's goal of increasing the number of college graduates in Montana, which could involve finding ways to get people with some credit but no degree back to school.
"I already know that we are a little low, so we'll have to work to bring that up," Nook said.
He also plans to tackle funding challenges as state and federal dollars for universities continue to decrease.
Nook said he'd like to engage local businesses and the community to help with private funding.
With a bachelor's degree in math and physics from Southwest Minnesota State University, a master's in astrophysics from Iowa State University and a doctorate in astronomy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Nook appreciates the value of research and development funding.
MSUB has seen a dramatic drop in such funding, losing more than half of its budget in just five years, from $6.2 million in 2009 to $2.9 million in 2013.
While working at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota as its planetarium director, he brought in about $1 million for upgrades to the equipment, as well as for class programs. Nook said those efforts included aggressively seeking hiring staff who had research money and letting them "teach students to be real scientists."
"We had more money than we had students to support," he said. "It allows us to get students involved in research and actually doing science. These research funds allow you build infrastructure within your university. There's so many benefits."
Colleagues in Minnesota, as well as many of those who hired him at MSUB, believe Nook is up to the challenges as chancellor and believe he'll thrive in Billings.
They described him as an enthusiastic leader who quickly worked his way up through the system using a commitment to strong relationships with those around him, an honest belief in education and sound decision making.
"You are really lucky to have gotten a really good person for the job, an honest person and a person who really cares," said Christine Thomas, dean of the College of Natural Resources at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
Nook, who grew up in Iowa, said that as he gained his education, he also gained an appreciation for the academic world and realized that's where he wanted to spend his career.
"I do have to admit that I enjoy this work," he said. "A university is a wonderful place to be, regardless of the role that you have. Helping students, faculty and staff work toward and achieve their goals, there just isn't any better place for me than that."
Spending the majority of his career in the Midwest, Nook's worked as everything from a physics instructor to a graduate teaching assistant, from the director of an observatory and planetarium to dean of students and all the way to his current role near the top of the UW system, with numerous other roles in between.
Past and current co-workers said Nook is data-driven in his decisions and presentations with a talent for translating complex issues.
"He does very well with data," said Rebecca Karoff, senior special assistant to Nook at the UW system. "He's very good at using data to tell stories. It can be very difficult to understand what's going on in the data and Mark is very good at telling that story."
Heather Kim, associate vice president for policy analysis and research at the Wisconsin system, answers directly to Nook and described him as a strong communicator open to new ideas.
"One of the things that I really respect about Mark is that he never gets defensive about people asking him questions," she said. "He takes feedback really well and I think that's important as a leader. He made me feel very open to ask questions and make suggestions."
He's also been active with his family — wife, Cheryl, and three grown children — throughout, something co-workers said has left a mark in every community in which they've lived.
"You just hired a family man," Thomas said. "You are getting Cheryl and Mark both. What we experienced here with them is we got a person who was extremely enthusiastic, really outgoing and a family who adopted the community."
Goals and expectations
While he's enjoyed his time in the Wisconsin system, Nook said he felt it was time to take on a position at a university that allowed him more contact and interaction with faculty, staff and students.
MSUB's smaller size — about 5,000 compared with 181,000 — and the size of Billings matched perfectly with those desires.
"What drives me is this interaction with the students and the faculty," he said. "I can make a difference in their lives and I know they can have an impact on me. I'm looking for a campus where that's going to happen."
Bruce Brumley is the MSUB Faculty Senate chair, a computer networking professor at City College and sat on the chancellor search committee. He also is a member of the chancellor's cabinet and executive budget committee and expects to have a close working relationship with Nook when he takes over.
He described Nook as the top candidate during the process "by a good margin" and said he expects him to carry forward positive momentum started by his predecessors, Groseth and Ron Sexton.
"I don't think he's really coming into any major problems or issues right now," Brumley said. "Most new chancellors come in and have to address some huge problem right away but his challenge will be to keep the momentum. I expect him to hit the ground running."
Cruzado said she hired Nook to tap further into MSUB's potential and that he's already surrounded with people who can help him achieve that goal, something she expects him to do.
"My first expectation is to make sure that he engages the faculty, the staff, the students and the community to take the promise that the university holds and fulfill that," she said. "This is something that he needs to identify by himself. I can't do that remotely."
As he prepares for the new job, Nook has identified numerous other goals that include working with and engaging the regional Native American communities and students and updating the university's strategic plan and working on student development and growth.
He also wants five years down the road to stabilize enrollment without impacting the university's online enrollment negatively.
While those all are different goals, he said the approach can be similar.
"One of the things that I've learned is that it's really important to engage all your stakeholders early on in planning efforts," he said. "Planning is really, really essential. Everybody needs to know where the institution is going and that they've got a part to play in that. I want to include everybody in the discussion of where it is we're going."
As Nook and his wife prepare for their June move to Billings, he continues to soak in as much information about the school as he can.
And while he might not know as much about Billings and MSUB as he'd like yet, Nook does know where he wants it to be down the road with him at the helm.
"I want to stretch it out a little more so that it can do more than people think it can do," he said. "It's all based on what this institution has been and the goal is to look at what else might this institution do to serve the people here and in the region."