Carmen Simone's goal had always been to work in education.
“I knew through my entire academic career that I wanted to be a teacher,” she said.
She did just that in 2000, when the Watford City, North Dakota, native took a job as a professor at Casper College. She rose again to administrative positions that led to her current job as president of Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado.
Now she's among the four candidates to be chancellor at Montana State University Billings. The MSUB job is one of three she's applied for in the past year, but Simone said the Billings job has particular value because it's close to her home state.
Simone spoke at a morning meeting with media and at an afternoon public forum during her visit to campus Tuesday. She declined a previous request for a one-on-one interview with The Gazette.
The forum featured questions from faculty, staff and community members. Simone took questions about adding diversity on campus and bringing in dollars for research, efforts which she applauded.
She said she had little experience with staff unions but looked forward to those meetings. And when asked how, at a smaller institution, she would shape programs in concert with larger flagship universities, she said that the more controllable outcomes are made through direct collaboration between faculties.
Other programming initiatives may be less malleable.
"You never want relationships to be mandated by the legislature," she said.
Simone said Tuesday morning that she wants to bring stability and wisdom to the MSUB chancellor's office. She said that improving student retention starts with improving students' personal experiences.
“Engagement of students early on is critical, and it doesn’t cost any money,” she said.
Retention and enrollment initiatives are paramount at MSUB, where the number of full-time students has been in decline for years. Statewide budget cuts reduced the financial resources available to combat the issue.
Simone has been atop an institution with financial hardship. When she arrived at Trinidad State Junior College in 2013, she said administrators uncovered an unplanned deficit equaling 25 percent of the budget. Simone said what followed was a tough period at the college.
“The two worst days of my life were the two days when we lost 10 percent of our workforce," she said. "We had 20 layoffs that day, and I promised myself that it would never happen again.”
MSUB isn't facing cuts as sharp as the ones Trinidad experienced, and the school has repeatedly said that no layoffs are in the picture.
After the budget crisis at Trinidad, Simone said administrators began reviewing budget progress monthly and spent a bit more conservatively. But she said that didn't mean there was a lack of investment.
“You have to take some risk with some of those dollars so that you can continue to grow and add more revenue into the institution,” she said.
The other candidates for the MSUB chancellor position will visit campus throughout the week.