Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

An unprecedented president November 24, 2009 by Tracy Ellig • Published 11/24/09

Geoff Gamble brought a new era and new optimism to Montana State University
Photo by Kelly GorhamMSU President Geoff Gamble
Photo by Kelly Gorham
For Geoffrey Gamble, education and prosperity were never givens.

His father worked in the cotton business and didn't make much of a living from it. The Gamble children were prepared by their parents for lives of hard work and self-sufficiency. The boys were taught to cook and sew; the one daughter how to repair a car.

Gamble's father, who never went beyond the seventh grade, thought education was a waste of time. His mother finished high school much later in life with a GED. His siblings never graduated from college.

The president of Montana State University was the first, and only, member of his family to earn a college degree.

And so when Gamble tells one of the adages he has adopted as his own, it is sincere in a way not obvious to those unfamiliar with his history: "For some the glass is half full, for some half empty. I'm just happy to have a glass."

It is a saying reflecting Gamble's immense optimism, an optimism that never flagged since his appointment as president in 2000.

"Everyone notices Geoff's optimism," said Jim Rimpau, who has known Gamble for more than 15 years and is MSU's vice president of planning. "I've never seen the guy down. I've seen him tired, but never down. The upbeat person the public sees is who he really is.

"I read a quote by Colin Powell that 'optimism is a force multiplier.' There isn't anyone who is a better example of that than Geoff," Rimpau said.

In his nine years as president, Gamble's leadership and his optimism transformed the university in major ways:

He fostered growth in the university's research enterprise, which significantly increased the opportunities for undergraduates to get hands-on research and creative experiences that prepare them for careers after college.

He championed an inclusive form of campus government giving everyone an opportunity to have a say about the university's direction; made major decisions transparent; and brought an unequaled amount of communication among faculty, staff and the administration.

He elevated the visibility of MSU as the university of choice for Native Americans and forged deep connections with the state's seven reservations.

His presidency was also marked by unparalleled accessibility to and engagement with everyone from custodians to students as well as a commitment to mentoring as many as he could around him.

And if all that were not enough, he and his wife, Patricia, have also made plans to leave their estate to the university as well as an endowment Patricia created in honor of her parents -- the Florence and Monty Moneyhan Scholarship Endowment. The combined gifts are unprecedented in the history of MSU presidents and their spouses.

"A good leader is one who talks little and when his work is done, the people say 'We did this ourselves.'"

-Lao Tzu
The gifts, which cumulatively could exceed $2 million, will act as the seed for the Geoff and Patricia Gamble Center for Student Success, a program that will provide resources to help students stay, and succeed, in school and for faculty to sharpen their teaching skills.

The center will address many of the challenges students face by expanding MSU's ability to provide tutoring -- both individual and group sessions; study skills and time management; academic, career and financial counseling; stress management; and navigating the social environment of a campus.

Additionally, the center will provide resources for faculty to hone their teaching skills. It will offer seminars on emerging classroom technologies; and on new tools and methods for getting students to participate in their education and become active learners.

"Over the years, our lives have been enriched beyond measure by the enthusiasm, accomplishments and friendship of so many students," said Patricia Gamble. "This is our thank you to them."

The center's ultimate purpose is to give students opportunities to benefit from everything that college, a profession, and life have to offer.

"I attribute my own success to teachers and friends who encouraged and inspired me," Gamble said. "Education has been the fountain of youth and prosperity for me. I want to do everything I can to help it be the same for our students."

Photo courtesy MSU News ArchivesPatricia and Geoff Gamble in an MSU Homecoming parade.
Photo courtesy of MSU News Archives

Students first

Gamble's first love has always been students and teaching. He left a lucrative insurance industry job after seven years to return to graduate school in linguistics: He wanted a doctorate and he wanted to teach.

Though his years as president kept him out of the classroom, interacting with students remains part of his routine.

When undergraduate Katie Conner Bennett won the prestigious Truman Scholarship in 2003, she received the news from Gamble who came into her 8 a.m. class with a "huge, beautiful bouquet of calla lilies," Bennett said.

"It was overwhelming to find out I had won that way," said Bennett who is now pursuing a doctorate in American Studies at the College of William and Mary. "It was so touching."

Gamble's care about undergraduates and accessibility is remarkable, Bennett said.

"I think he's a great man," she said. "I'm happy for him because he gets to retire, but sorry for MSU because I think it is a tremendous loss for the university."

Gamble tried to have lunch with every MSU student who won a major award. In 2005, that student was Brian Brush, winner of a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation graduate scholarship worth up to $300,000.

"He was always really approachable, warm and sincere," Brush said. "I really appreciated that about him."

Brush is currently pursuing master's degrees in architecture and urban planning at Columbia University in New York City. He hopes to return to Bozeman.

"I confess I am sad to hear he is retiring as I was hoping to someday come back and teach at MSU during his tenure," Brush said. "I wanted to have a professional relationship with him and learn from him. I guess it's mostly because of his character. He was someone you were drawn to as a person. You just want to be around him and listen to what he has to say."

As an ASMSU president, Shane Colvin got to know Gamble more than most students.

"I've just seen him in so many capacities trying to honor the different levels of student achievement," said Colvin, who won a Mitchell Scholarship in 2008, often called the "Irish Rhodes."

"It's quite amazing the individual attention he would give to people," Colvin said.

'I attribute my own success to teachers and friends who encouraged and inspired me. Education has been the fountain of youth and prosperity for me. I want to do everything I can to help it be the same for our students'

-Geoff Gamble
Colvin's first meeting with Gamble was years before he became ASMSU president. He was working on a service project and called the president for advice.

"All I had to do was schedule an appointment," Colvin said. "That was cool being able to go right to President Gamble and not have to go through three or four other people first. Any student could do that."

Colvin wants to stay in touch with Gamble.

"I guess you would say he's the sort of person I would like to emulate," he said. "He has a knack for being able to approach many different people on many different levels, but he is also just a genuinely fun person to talk and interact with."

All in it together

The openness and accessibility Gamble extends to students meshes with his larger philosophy of running the university, called "shared governance."

In simplest terms, shared governance means major decisions are made in the open and everyone can have a say in the direction of the university. Gamble is credited with advancing shared governance to levels unprecedented at MSU and rarely seen at public universities nationally.

"Shared governance is not a given," said Marvin Lansverk, an English professor who is Faculty Senate chair-elect. "Every institution in the country makes happy talk about it, but not all do it. Our faculty is represented on all the major decisions."

In addition to the weekly Faculty Senate meetings -- which are attended by the Provost -- Faculty Senate leaders meet weekly with Gamble and administrative leaders as part of shared governance.

"We write the agenda for these meetings," said Wes Lynch, MSU psychology professor and Faculty Senate chair. "It's on their turf, but it's our meeting. It's open communication."

Photo by Kelly GorhamPhoto by Kelly Gorham

Gamble's commitment to the meetings set the tone for the rest of campus, said past Faculty Senate chair Shannon Taylor.

"The rule of thumb was 'no surprises,'" Taylor said. "No group would first learn about a major decision in the Bozeman Chronicle. The president set an expectation across campus that people were to be informed of what was going on."

Though such meetings are part of Gamble's vision, its centerpiece is the University Planning, Budget and Analysis Committee, also known as UPBAC. It is the most important and widely watched university committee, one of the few with regular media coverage. It is composed of 25 members: all the deans, vice presidents, representatives of faculty, professional and classified staff, a local community member, the provost and the student body president.

Its primary goal is to set the university budget.

"The benefit of this process is a sense that we are all in this together," Taylor said. "There are big, campus-wide goals worth working for and you get buy-in if everyone understands what those goals are."

The messenger

In 2004, MSU implemented its Core 2.0 curriculum in which every undergraduate participates in a research or creative experience while pursuing a degree. Recognizing its value to students and its potential to raise the university's stature, Gamble promoted undergraduate research in nearly every speech he gave. His campaigning changed how the university saw itself and how it was seen by others.

"He has elevated the profile of the university, especially in research and excellence in undergrad research opportunities," said Todd Eliason, former chair of the MSU Alumni Association and retired business unit president of Verizon. "Clearly people look at MSU differently than they did 10 years ago. His constant message about the benefits of undergraduate research had a lot to do with that."

In addition to the curriculum, the university supports students' interests in research and creative work through the Undergraduate Scholars Program, where students can apply for small grants to fund their own projects.

"This marriage of research with education is a huge competitive asset for our students," Eliason said. "As a CEO, I've hired many college grads. Those who can apply research and knowledge will rise to the top. Even today I don't think our students fully understand what a benefit this is."

Though Gamble was not the architect of MSU's research enterprise -- an endeavor that advanced under the efforts of many people -- he never missed an opportunity to promote its value and accomplishments, whether it was advances in energy, medicine, agriculture or the discovery of a new dinosaur.

In early 2006, the university became one of only 96 institutions, out of more than 4,300 nationally, to meet the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching's criteria for their highest research classification. MSU remains the only top-tier research institution in the five-state region of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and North and South Dakota.

"One of his most tangible accomplishments was his advocacy for research funding," said Greg Gianforte, CEO and founder of Right Now Technologies. "Research has made the university a richer place that creates better opportunities for students and faculty. His fingerprints are all over that."

He is one man I would walk to the ends of the earth with. He has helped everyone, not just Native Americans, reach their potential.

-Henrietta Mann
MSU's emphasis on the undergraduate research experience has played an important role for all the technology companies in the Gallatin Valley, Gianforte said.

"As the largest commercial employer in Bozeman, 45 percent of our employees are MSU graduates and we rely very heavily on the university. We wouldn't be here if the university wasn't here," he said.

Also in 2006, MSU announced it had topped $100 million in research dollars for the first time.

"Passing the hundred million mark was phenomenal," said Chris Nelson, founder and CEO of Zoot. "Students get to work in labs most businesses would only dream of owning."

Photo courtesy MSU News ArchivevsPhoto courtesy of MSU News Archives

One who listens, one who sees

At the head of Gamble's desk in Montana Hall lies a beaded medicine bag given to Gamble by Henrietta Mann at his inauguration in 2001. A medicine bag is a sacred object and its presentation was the beginning of an important relationship between Gamble and Mann.

At the time, Mann had recently arrived at MSU as the endowed chair for the Department of Native American Studies after having intermittently spent the previous 28 years at the University of Montana. Gamble had an intimate understanding of Native American culture as the last speaker of Wikchamni, a South Central Californian tribal language he studied as a linguist.

In 2003, Gamble asked Mann to be a special assistant to the president's office and act as his principal adviser and ambassador to Native Americans in Montana and across the nation.

Elevating Mann was seen as a sign of respect to Native Americans at large, said Jodi Rave, a well-known Native American newspaper journalist who wrote for Lee Enterprises.

"Henrietta Mann is arguably the most prominent Indian educator in the United States," said Rave, who is now at work on a book and writes regularly for her blog about Native community, culture and communication. "Many could have forgotten about her after her long career in academia, but President Gamble recognized, in a real Native sense, that she still had a lot more power and knowledge to share."

One of the first projects Gamble and Mann worked on was the creation of the Council of Elders, where representatives of the state's tribes meet twice annually at MSU.

"He really did create a listening post," Rave said. "Listening is one of the most important parts of our society. He listens to students and elders about things needed on campus to make it a more holistic experience. Not just learning, but also a good experience."

(Gamble) values everyone and goes out of his way to see how everyone in the university is doing, from his staff to the campus custodians.

-Sheila Sterns
Gamble empowered Mann to fill leadership roles in the nation's Native American community. She was on the board of trustees for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. She is currently the president of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe Tribal College in Weatherford, Okla.

"He's nurtured me, honored me. He said 'Go and do your job and I will support you,'" Mann said.

During the Gamble years the number of Native American students at MSU rose from 211 in 2000 to 377 in 2009, an increase of 79 percent.

"The First Peoples of Montana have often seemed to be an invisible population, but we are not invisible to Geoff Gamble," Mann said. "He sees us. His leadership is visionary in that regard. He is one man I would walk to the ends of the earth with. He has helped everyone, not just Native Americans, reach their potential."

Photo by Kelly GorhamPhoto by Kelly Gorham

A mentor, a leader

Mann's opinion that Gamble helps those around him reach their potential is widely shared.

"I was clearly someone he mentored," said Sara Jayne Steen, former dean of MSU's College of Letters and Science and now president of Plymouth State University in New Hampshire.

Gamble successfully nominated Steen for the American Council on Education Fellows Program, the nation's premier program for preparing college and university leaders.

"It was a validation that he thought my judgment was good and he wanted me to use it on behalf of Montana State or someone else," Steen said. "That sense of looking to people and wanting them to succeed is what a mentor does. It is the job of a president to help others succeed and Geoff did that."

Former MSU Provost and now University of Rhode Island President David Dooley also credits Gamble with teaching him many valuable lessons.

"I learned from him his practice of listening carefully and thoughtfully before acting. He is very deliberate in his consideration. He wants a complete picture of factors that may impact a decision," Dooley said. "That is an important thing to learn about leadership."

In his desire to see people succeed, Gamble was very patient, Dooley said.

"He held people accountable in meaningful ways, but he also gave them multiple chances to get things right," Dooley said. "It allowed those of us who worked for him to take more risks than if we were working for someone who couldn't stand mistakes. Over time that was a great benefit because people became more willing to think creatively than if they had felt that one misstep would land them in trouble."

Even those who did not work for Gamble saw, or experienced, how he valued people.

"He made everyone around him feel important, rather than make himself important," said Zoot CEO Nelson.

When Gamble learned Nelson was a fan of the science fiction series "Star Trek," he contacted his colleague in linguistics -- Gambles' doctorate is in the field -- who had written the Klingon dictionary and asked him to inscribe, in Klingon, one of the space alien language's dictionaries. He presented it to Nelson as a gift.

"That was about as class an act as I've seen. It made me feel special and honored that he would take the time to do that," Nelson said. "I've thought about that and it's made me look to a higher calling of service to people in my own life, to do things without looking for anything in return."

Gamble's boss, Montana Commissioner of Higher Education Sheila Stearns, has evaluated him numerous times during his presidency and his dedication to people always came through.

"He has never considered himself above someone. He values everyone and goes out of his way to see how everyone in the university is doing, from his staff to the campus custodians," Stearns said. "He really created a sense of pride and camaraderie among the whole MSU community. It is unusual in universities to have such a feeling abide for nine years, but it has at MSU."

When Gamble is asked to enumerate his accomplishments -- including mentoring those around him -- he is quick to defer, crediting others and quoting Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: "A good leader is one who talks little and when his work is done the people say 'We did this ourselves.'"

"He is a very humble man," said Henrietta Mann. "I often want to say, 'Geoff Gamble, look and see what you have done!'

"I don't know that he realizes what he has accomplished."

Gamble's Grounding

When asked to list MSU President Geoff Gamble's strengths as a leader and as a person, Whitney MacMillian, former CEO of Cargill and board member of the Burton K. Wheeler Center for Public Policy at MSU had this to say: "A few comments about my friend, Geoff Gamble: His enthusiasm lifts the energy level of any room he is in. He is a great listener. He is comfortable to be with. He married very well."

Talk to anyone who knows the president and you will always hear fondness and admiration for his wife, Patricia, a kind and gentle presence behind the scenes.

She has stayed largely out of the public eye during his administration, but is the president's frequent companion at public events, a gracious host at their home and a friend to many in the community.

"She is the most loving person," said Ginny Martin, a recipient of an MSU honorary doctorate who has known Patricia since the couple arrived in Bozeman. "I've never known anyone as thoughtful. She would do anything for anyone.

"Even though I'm 30 years her senior, we're like girls together when we talk. I just love her."

A common refrain from those who know her is that Patricia has an extraordinary ability to make people feel valued.

"She epitomizes the phrase 'heart of gold,'" said Cathy Conover, MSU vice president of communications and public affairs.

"She is very humble and treats everyone she meets -- regardless of who they are or what they do -- with the same sincerity and warmth," Conover said.

When the Gambles entertain guests in their home, as they frequently do, "Patricia's graciousness puts everyone at ease and makes them immediately feel welcome," Conover said.

When announcing his retirement, Gamble made clear his desire to spend more time with Patricia. They have been married for 25 years.

"She has played a significant role, in a quiet way, in partnering with Geoff in the presidency," Conover said. "They have a wonderful relationship and complement each other beautifully."

Jim Rimpau, who has known Gamble for more than 15 years and is MSU's vice president of planning, said some of the president's success is due to his spouse.

"She has never let the presidency affect her and so it hasn't affected them," Rimpau said. "Patricia is a down-to-earth, genuine person. She'd be that way regardless of whether he was president or selling insurance. Through all the challenges of a presidency, she has kept him grounded."