Northwest Montana’s Higher Education Advocate

Robert Nystuen elected vice chair of state Board of Regents, to serve as keynote speaker in 2018 economic outlook

By Dillon Tabish
Glacier Bank President Robert Nystuen, pictured Friday, May 16, 2014 in Lakeside. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Robert Nystuen, a Lakeside resident and president at Glacier Bank, has been elected vice chair of the Montana University System Board of Regents and will serve as the keynote speaker at next year’s statewide economic outlook seminar.

Nystuen was appointed to the state Board of Regents in the summer of 2015 and has quickly risen to the rank of vice chair, a position he was selected for by the other six regents in May.

It’s the first time in years that Northwest Montana has had a high-ranking regent from this region, and the position provides an important local voice involved in overseeing the state’s universities and colleges. It also connects Montana’s higher education system and the business world, a relationship that is increasingly vital in the modern economic landscape, according to Nystuen. The longtime executive will shed light on the connection between the two at the 2018 Bureau of Business and Economic Research seminar, which is a statewide tour starting in January.

Nystuen is a longtime education advocate. Before being selected to the state Board of Regents, he served on the board of trustees at Flathead Valley Community College for eight years.

“We have to continue to do a better job of articulating the value of education,” he said. “I’ve always maintained that the key to personal, business and economic prosperity is through education, most notably higher education. I think that’s the gateway to a brighter personal career.”

Nystuen said he applauds those who can succeed without attending college, but he believes the “odds are diminished if you don’t have that extra discipline of higher education.”

Nystuen said he has taken this mindset into his work on the Board of Regents.

The 16 public universities and colleges of the Montana University System collectively enroll over 46,000 students. The MUS annually receives about $55 million in the form of federal grants, which provide financial aid and other assistance for students.

A key goal of Nystuen and others is to remove barriers for students that prevent them from pursuing higher education and succeeding once they begin developing a path toward a career. This includes protecting financial aid resources, such as federal assistance and affordable tuition. Faced with revenue reductions, the most recent Legislature cut spending on higher education by nearly 2 percent, or $3.2 million, for the 2018 fiscal year. This led the Board of Regents to raise tuition across the state for the first time in several years.

“I think the Legislature treated us fairly. There were not extra dollars,” Nystuen said. “We had to tighten our budgets, and for the first time in many years, we did a modest tuition increase.”

He added: “Funding is a challenge.”

Nystuen said the university system is reviewing campuses across Montana to ensure they are providing efficient and effective curriculums and programming. A prime example of a campus succeeding at this is Flathead Valley Community College, according to Nystuen.

“Across the system, we want to find out what’s needed,” he said.

Nystuen compared this strategy to a simple business philosophy: give the customer what they want.

“What job openings are there across the state? And how can campuses allocate resources and apply them to what (students) want and need?” Nystuen said.

There are also barriers in the form of traditional prerequisites, such as college algebra, that could be hampering students’ success in an unnecessary way, Nystuen said.

Non-traditional students who are older and further removed from high school can often struggle with math courses, which ends up preventing them from achieving most degrees, Nystuen said.

“In 42 years being a banker, I’ve never had to solve an algebraic equation. But there is so-called life math that I think we need to have to be able to exist in the workplace,” he said.

“I think there are different types of math that can provide the support that’s needed but doesn’t prevent these students from succeeding.”

At the same time, Nystuen acknowledges the importance of STEM education, meaning science, technology, engineering and math, which are increasing vital disciplines in the information age. He points to the recent success at Montana State University, which has become the largest in Montana and provides high-quality STEM courses, as an example of adapting to the modern education landscape.

With this in mind, Nystuen said he and the other regents are devoted to bolstering the Montana University System and ensuring that graduates are best prepared to succeed in their career of choice.

“I see it every day, how critical it is that people come with skills and have been through the rigors of higher education,” he said. “It certainly helps pave the way for us to have employees who have a much brighter chance of success.”

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