Longtime Bitterroot College Director Victoria Clark has resigned but the program will offer academic classes this fall thanks to the University of Montana.
Since the Bitterroot Valley Community College funding levy was rejected by community members on May 3, the future of the Bitterroot College has been undefined.
The Bitterroot College Advisory Council met Thursday with Missoula College Dean Thomas Gallagher who has been appointed as the lead to establish a deeper connection between the Bitterroot College Program and the University of Montana.
Also in attendance were staff, faculty and several of the Bitterroot Valley Community College trustees. All were anxious to learn about the future of the Hamilton school.
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“It is really important that we take care of the students that we have now and the ones that we will be recruiting to come seek higher education in August,” Gallagher said. “I encourage you all to help with recruiting. There are academic courses, there are faculty getting ready to deliver those educational experiences.”
Gallagher said that the goal is to continue academic classes and work on developing workforce education programs in Hamilton.
“It’s been a rough couple of weeks and we need to process moving forward,” he said. “My role right now is to stabilize and I appreciate recommendations.”
Several board members thanked UM for stepping up to provide continuity.
Concerns focused on having a formal description of the partnership between UM and the Bitterroot College Program. Some advisory board members said they believe it needs a new name to reflect what it is. It is not a campus or branch of UM, and although college credits have been granted and lives improved, it is not an official college through the Montana University System.
Faculty member Jaime Middleton said she views the Bitterroot College Program positively.
“I see the faces of students who have achieved dreams, have made their careers and are feeding their families. I see a lot of success,” she said. “We need a clear and concise mission and marketing. We need to say we are still here, we are serving students, and we are alive and thriving and sign up for classes.”
Clark’s last day will be June 6.
In an email message earlier this week, faculty lead Jennifer Johnson said Clark’s resignation, “is a profound loss to everyone at Bitterroot College.”
“Her intelligence, wisdom, leadership, resilience, tenacity, belief and heart helped keep BC a promising beacon for all willing and wishing to better their lives and elevate their intelligence,” Johnson said. “She will be greatly missed.”
Bitterroot College UM Advisory Council Chair Candy Lubansky and the advisory board thanked Clark for her 13 years of effort.
“There are not enough words to express appreciation,” Lubansky said. “I’m finding the English language inadequate to tell you how much you’ve meant to us, how much you mean to the Bitterroot Valley, our students, our staff, our faculty. Thank you from all of us.”
The room of over 20 people stood and clapped.
Clark said it has been her privilege to serve the community.
“Community is what makes democracy,” Clark said. “I spent my young adult years looking for community and I found it in the Bitterroot Valley. You have to stand with your community through thick and thin, it is a process. If you believe in something you have to work together to do it.”
She said the community has given her a purpose.
“Communities are complicated with different values and I love being part of the mix,” Clark said. “Thank you all for letting me be part of the mix.”
Gallagher praised Clark for her outstanding leadership and championing for higher education in the Bitterroot Valley.
“[She] works hard to help students do something spectacular,” Gallagher said. “As a representative of the University of Montana, I thank her for her many years of dedication and service to promoting higher education.”
Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, said that since the levy failed, he has met with Commissioner of Higher Education Clay Christian and UM President Seth Bodnar.
On Wednesday, Lubansky, Bedey, Bodnar and Gallagher met to discuss Bedey’s vision for Bitterroot College going forward.
“We talked about the short-term navigation of the next year and then the vision Dave would like to see it come to using the Bitterroot Valley in terms of CTE, career technology education, and broader workforce development,” Lubansky said. “We talked about the short-term stabilizing the next year for our students, staff and faculty.”
After much discussion on process, contracts, underfunding for years, competition for funding with other community colleges and moving forward without UM to establish BVCC, Gallagher said the UM stands firm with no established end date.
“There are no intentions to discontinue services in Hamilton and at Bitterroot College on behalf of the University of Montana,” Gallagher said.
Clark said her concern is that the UM is offering only academic education and will no longer have community education programs or workforce programs.
“Why can’t we move to the model we know works?” she asked. “We know the community college works. We’re all set up. Why are we trying something else for a while and then choosing to come back to what we know works?”
The meeting ended with a discussion about the uncertainty of Bitterroot Valley Community College ever being established with UM presence in the valley, despite it being on the books.
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