Victoria Clark, Director of the Bitterroot College UM, put in her last day on the job this Monday, June 6, 2022. This August would have marked her 13th year on the job. Clark remembers when she started, she was the only employee at the school. Since then, things have changed quite a bit.
“My time spent launching Bitterroot College UM and developing the college into an organization valued by students has brought me a great sense of purpose,” said Clark in her letter of resignation. “I am indebted to the culture of commitment and compassion fostered by Bitterroot College UM staff and faculty. I am indebted to the thousands of students who chose Bitterroot College UM as a place to learn, connect, and transform their lives.
“As the next chapter of access to post-secondary learning services in the Bitterroot Valley unfolds,” she wrote, “I encourage a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach. I encourage UM and state higher education leadership to include the Bitterroot Valley Community College (BVCC) trustees as partners.”
Clouding that new landscape, of course, is the recent failure of the levy to support the new Bitterroot Valley Community College District. Clark said her main concern upon departure is the fate of the Adult Education Services that the college has only just begun to develop outside the usual more academic, college preparatory offerings. She said that she believes that transitioning into a Bitterroot Valley Community College District is still the best avenue for higher education in Ravalli County.
“A community college is the best way to achieve the kind of legitimacy, resources and authority that’s needed,” said Clark. She said a good local college can provide a good transfer education to a four-year program at the UM or elsewhere and provide for workforce education, adult education, lifelong learning and community development.
“While BVCC voters turned down an operational levy request for the new district on May 3, 2022,” she wrote, “I do not believe the majority of BVCC voters refuted the new district nor refuted ever supporting the new district via a local levy. I believe voters would welcome another opportunity to weigh-in on a different levy request. Such a request would require a durational limit and a fixed dollar amount. Too, the request would need to be backed by more programming detail and more information on how Montana law already protects property owners from property tax increases during times of rising property values and inflationary worries.”
Clark received quite a few words of praise for her years of service at a recent meeting of the Bitterroot College Advisory Council from faculty members and from the chair of the advisory council, Candy Lubansky. Missoula College Dean Tom Gallagher was also in attendance and praised Clark for her outstanding
leadership and commitment to higher education.
“It has been my sincere pleasure to have worked alongside Director Clark during the past 13 years,” wrote Gallagher in an email to the Star. “We are grateful for her service to the University of Montana and her leadership at Bitterroot College. She has touched the lives of many Ravalli County residents by providing the gift of higher education.”
Clark said she is not going anywhere and was looking forward to a new phase in her life.
“I’m looking forward to new challenges and I’m always going to advocate for Adult Learning Services in Ravalli County,” said Clark.
State Representative David Bedey, who has been following developments at the college closely, said that Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian assured him that the UM is committed to offering education opportunities in the Bitterroot, specifically tasking UM President Seth Bodnar with making that happen.
“There is a two-fold thing going on right now,” said Bedey. “One thing is the immediate necessity of keeping some sort of activity going on at the school in Hamilton. Part of that will be determining an interim-director or determining how leadership in that program is going to go forward.”
“The other thing is, I believe, that we have to look at this not so much as a problem to be solved as it is an opportunity to be seized. By that I mean the Commissioner of Higher Education needs to change the way it is providing services to better meet the needs of the community.”
Bedey said the challenge he made to the Commissioner and to the president of UM was to look at it in a broader sense. He said 50% of Montanans live in a rural environment away from the services provided by a campus university system. In that system, most offer a two-year program where you have excellent educational offerings and access to business partnerships in education. But in the more rural areas, with no campuses, where 50% of the population lives, you don’t have those opportunities. The chance now is to provide those opportunities.
“We are going to work on a collaborative effort at providing those opportunities to the densest populated area of the state that doesn’t have those opportunities yet and is outside the university campus system,” said Bedey. He said it is all still embryonic in form, but that he was confident that all parties were going to make a good faith effort to do that.
“If we work hard together we can have a good quality education provided by the university system,” he said, “and we can play a large part in seeing how that’s done.” The success of providing all this, he said, is going to be predicated on two things. One is accepting this as an important mission. Two is changing the metrics of success. One metric, he said, was to fund by the number of students you serve. This would be preferential to providing services in high density population areas. So we are going to have to look for metrics that will allow for serving more rural populations away from the main campuses. He calls it “expeditionary education,” taking place away from the brick and mortar base.
When asked on Monday to comment about the current/future funding of the Bitterroot College UM, Gallagher wrote the following response”
“There are dedicated faculty and staff at the helm for Bitterroot College. A full breadth of in-person academic course offerings are slated for students at Bitterroot College during autumn term 2022. We have a strong partnership with Helena College in providing licensing practical nursing (LPN) program. We will continue to deliver workforce education in partnership with local healthcare providers.
“We will be expanding workforce education opportunities for students by providing access to certificates in cybersecurity, addictions counseling, and paralegal studies. These certificates can be stacked with general education in earning the associate of arts or associate of science degree. We anticipate delivery of one or more cohorts for the Montana Code School for individuals interested in programming and coding careers. We will be enhancing the existing partnership with Accelerate Montana, the workforce development branch of the University of Montana, to provide access to trades education through programs such as Job Site Ready, a program providing rapid training for the construction industry.
“The University of Montana remains committed to providing Ravalli County residents access to academic and workforce education programs through Bitterroot College.”
The Bitterroot College UM has not technically been designated a university campus by the legislature like the other nine college campuses around the state. Instead, it is operated as an extension of the Missoula College UM but with its own instructional budget.
According to data available on the university website (https://mus.edu/data/operating_budgets/FY22/index.html) showing the current instructional funds for the state’s two-year colleges, the Missoula College received $4,613,792 for the Missoula campus serving a population of 117,922 which totals about $39 per capita for higher education, while the Bitterroot Campus received only $288,536 for a population of 44,174 for a per capita expenditure of $7 for higher education.
If Bitterroot College UM were funded at the same instructional/per capita ratio as Missoula College it would have received $1,728,343 for instruction in FY2021.
Per capita, Missoula College receives 5.6 times more funding for instruction than Bitterroot College.
Missoula College receives 16 times the amount of funding for instruction that Bitterroot College does despite Missoula County only being 2.7 times the population of Ravalli County.