Although their duties may seem to hide behind the scenes, several administrators play a crucial role in keeping the university running smoothly. One of these administrators is Bob Mokwa, Ph.D., MSU’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. This position is the second-highest ranking administrator at the university after President Waded Cruzado. Mokwa oversees MSU’s 10 college and school deans, the university’s academic programs, faculty hiring and development, numerous centers and institutes, the WWAMI Medical Education Program and the university’s online course offerings through the university’s eLearning technology unit, in addition to other duties. The Exponent had the opportunity to interview Mokwa to get a glimpse into his daily life and accomplishments.
What does an average day in your office entail?
If I were to sum up what I do in a day it would break down generally into three bins: about 60 percent of my day is asking questions, listening to the answers and making sure I understand the plans, goals and directions of deans, department heads, faculty and others. About 20 percent of my day is devoted to giving those same people feedback that I hope makes them more successful. And finally, I strive to devote about 20 percent of my day thinking and planning about the big picture: Where is the university now? What can I do to help the university achieve its strategic goals? What are our greatest strengths and what is our unrealized potential? By the way, I know what the university’s strategic goals are because we have a superb strategic plan called “Choosing Promise.”
What have you achieved as the MSU executive vice president for academic affairs and provost?
I started as the interim provost in May 2016. Since that time, MSU has increased the percentage of students who are staying in school from freshman to sophomore year and the percentage of students who are graduating. I claim no sole credit for that significant achievement. It has been the work of the whole university, and I am extremely proud to be part of the teams that have made this happen. Our faculty, staff and administration are all pulling in the same direction for the sake of the students – keeping students in school and helping them earn their degree. That’s what keeps me coming to work with drive and enthusiasm, every day.
Over the past six years, we have stood up a variety of new and exciting academic degrees ranging from workforce development programs in Gallatin College to new undergraduate and graduate majors in every one of our nine academic colleges. We also have expanded our Ph.D. and doctoral offerings and enrollments to better serve student career interests and employer needs in the state, region and nation.
We implemented new and improved practices in a variety of other areas including a revamped approach to academic advising through the new Advising Commons unit that is led by Emily Edwards and her dedicated staff of professional advisors. We moved the Allen Yarnell Center for Student Success (AYCSS) into Academic Affairs about two years ago to bolster the synergy between academic units and student support services. I have been so impressed by the success of this transition and the beneficial relationships and programs that continue to evolve as faculty work with the outstanding individuals in AYCSS. Several of the programs delivered by the professionals at AYCSS have been implemented at other colleges and universities. It’s a telltale indicator we are making good progress when others observe and copy approaches that are becoming ingrained in our academic colleges and departments. These teams are really knocking it out of the park!
What did being named the provost and executive vice president mean to you when you were given this position in 2017? Has this changed over time?
Given my family background and upbringing, I have always had a strong attraction to the land grant mission. My family roots in the U.S. were established by Polish immigrants on my father’s side who provided for our families by working in the steel mills and coal mines in the industrial cities of the east coast and in various locations along the rugged Appalachian Mountains. I did my best to follow in their big footsteps for a short while working as a laborer in underground coal mines, earning enough to pay for my undergraduate engineering degree at Virginia Tech.
The lessons I learned growing up in a hard-working, close nit family environment have served me well my entire professional life and now I appreciate even more fully the lessons I learned shoveling coal and cribbing loose rock 3,000 feet below the ground surface. These experiences taught me that hard work is a noble undertaking, regardless of the job title or perceived prestige. I hear similar stories from many of our bright, hard-working students today, which fuels my optimism for a future full of opportunities for rewarding careers and meaningful lives.
This is the fourth land grant university I have been affiliated with since starting my higher education journey at Virginia Tech with stints at Purdue University and the University of Massachusetts. The 150-year-old land grant concept is still relevant today because providing the opportunity for a high-quality education for the young and not-so-young sons and daughters of the working families of America has never been more important. This is what inspired me to serve Montana State in an academic leadership position. Has this changed over time? Yes, my enthusiasm and gratitude to work with outstanding faculty and staff is levels above where I was five to six years ago. I am humbled to work with teams of dedicated individuals all focused on the MSU mission of serving students and the state. That is such an incredible motivator.
What are your plans for this academic year and/or years to follow?
Like everyone else, I look forward to next steps and putting the pandemic behind us. I am especially excited about this because Montana State is poised to emerge with a solid foundation to implement lessons learned in the classrooms and in our student support services. These lessons are being shared collaboratively between faculty through the MSU Center for Faculty Excellence. On October 5, the director of CFE, Dean Adams and the CFE team, led a full day symposium on innovative teaching approaches. The workshops were delivered by MSU faculty experts and we had over 100 faculty members in attendance at the symposium. Our faculty are truly life-long learners. We will continue to implement new and improved teaching and learning practices, as well as expand our use of instructional technology when it allows us to improve the pedagogy of courses and programs.
We will work on expanding opportunities for students to participate in our Hilleman Scholars Program, which helps Montana students stay in college and succeed. The program has shown incredible results and allowed many students to meet their academic goals and graduate from college. This program is a testament to the forward-looking perspective of Vice Provost Carina Beck and the AYCSS. While the Hilleman Scholars is one of the highest profile projects of the AYCSS, the center will continue to pilot and roll out solid initiatives to help students stay on track to graduation.
Over the next several years we will plan, design and build out the academic programs, enrollment and buildings made possible by the $101 million investment in MSU from Mark and Robyn Jones. The pandemic has shown us the incredible importance of health care education and I’m looking forward to seeing the university expand its enrollment in nursing to address future healthcare needs in the state. You can read more about that at: https://www.montana.edu/news/21406/montana-state-university-announces-philanthropic-gift-of-101m-the-largest-donation-ever-to-a-college-of-nursing-in-the-u-s.
Finally, I hope to see to fruition the MSU vision for building a new, permanent home for Gallatin College. Gallatin College is currently spread over four different locations in the county, and due to a lack of space, there are waiting lists for many of its programs. Montana State has proposed a new building that would bring all those programs under one roof and allow for more students to enroll. We’ll need to be patient because the funding will have to come from the Montana Legislature and that can be a long process. However, I have great faith that this goal will become a reality because the needs by employers for educated and trained employees is appreciable and the interest from potential students is significant. All indicators tell us that employer needs and student demands will continue to grow even larger in the upcoming years.