The President’s Perspective


Categories: Campus , Academic

President Sheila Stearns and anthropology instructor Garry Kerr watch the solar eclipse Aug. 21 on the Oval.
President Sheila Stearns and anthropology instructor Garry Kerr watch the solar eclipse Aug. 21 on the Oval.

On Aug. 21, I watched the solar eclipse “through a glass darkly” along with a crowd of folks who gathered on the Oval here on campus. Though not 100 percent totality, I enjoyed visiting with our campus community out in force to witness celestial history.

Do you remember the movie “Apollo 13” based on real-life events with that particular mission to the moon? In the film, a group of scientists must create a CO2 filter using only materials available to the astronauts in the lunar module. Before they even begin, many express skepticism and fear about the daunting task. Gene Kranz, the NASA flight director (played by Ed Harris), directs the team, saying, “Let’s work the problem, people.” In the next scene, they are tossing a box of materials onto a table and trying prototypes.

There are parallels to our current challenges at UM and how we seek answers to move forward. To be clear, this is no life-and-death space mission. Still, our challenges are real. For some, the process of significant change makes us uneasy. We are responding to declining enrollment with a thoughtful plan to serve current and new students. We are advancing specific opportunities in a new “Strategic Vision: Creating Change Together.” We are providing education demanded by today’s workforce, yet honoring UM’s rich tradition in the humanities as the foundation for every professional path. 

Through private gifts and internal allocation, we are investing in lovely classrooms with current technology. We are expanding online education through Project Reconnect for former students. Expanded online programs will improve retention and persistence to graduation. These initiatives and many more are as inspiring to me as the scene from “Apollo 13.”

We will not just work the problem but also embrace it throughout fall semester. The Academic Programs and Administrative Services Prioritization Task Force is preparing an ambitious report to evaluate UM’s programs and services. The process enables us to make strategic investments and changes.

Another way we work the problem is to achieve record-breaking philanthropy and research. Soon we will welcome the next University of Montana president. Just as the Apollo scientists focused on creative solutions given their operational constraints and strengths, so shall the people at the heart of this historic University pull together for success.

In a later scene in the movie, as others are contemplating the possibility of failure, Kranz says, “With all due respect, sir, I believe this is going to be our finest hour.” Regardless of whether these quotes are historically accurate (artistic license makes for a good Hollywood ending), the message rings as true to me today as it did in my brief recollection of the movie while watching the solar eclipse: We are working the problem. I immodestly predict that after much hard work in our 125th anniversary year, the University of Montana also will experience its finest hour.

Go Griz!

Sheila Stearns, President

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