Dr. Edward Montgomery began his tenure as Western Michigan University’s ninth president last week, taking over from former President John Dunn who stepped down after a decade in the role. Montgomery joins WMU after a career in a variety of positions both within and outside academia. An economist by training, Mongomery most recently served as the dean of the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University. He also worked in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, serving as the “Auto Recovery Czar” during the latter president’s term in office. Less than two days into his new position, Montgomery spoke with MiBiz about his background in higher education and his plans for the university going forward.
It sounds like you’ve had a whirlwind of meetings, phone calls and events so far. What are your first impressions of WMU and the West Michigan area?
This has been an incredibly welcoming and supportive experience. I’ve had the chance, both during the summer in a variety of informal meetings, as well as the first day and a half here on campus, to meet faculty and staff and some students and some alums. I went to the Bronco night at Comerica (Park), and just the more I interact with the community, the more and more impressed I am about them. I love their enthusiasm for this place, this university, and I’m just looking forward to being a part of this community.
You’ve spent a long career in higher education. Can you describe your background?
I got my Ph.D. from Harvard, and I’ve taught at four different universities. Across those four universities, I’ve been a faculty member, and also a dean at two different places. I was a dean at University of Maryland and their College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, and then the dean of the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown. I’ve been both an administrator and I’ve been a faculty member for about 35 years.
What attracted you to economics?
I went into economics because I thought it was a discipline that had things to say about the real world. My research has always been about applied problems and I love that.
Why did you make the move into public policy?
I spent some time in the Clinton Administration at the U.S. Department of Labor. I started off as the chief economist there, and then eventually became the Deputy Secretary of the Labor Department. That gave me a taste of both being an economist, but being an economist in the government working on a whole set of very interesting problems, being part of creating job training programs, being part of working on worker safety issues, talking about international negotiations on child labor — just a whole range of issues.
How did that set you up to return to academia?
That was a great experience for me in the late 1990s, and it gave me a little taste of administration, which put me on the path to becoming a dean. I came back and did a couple of those stints.
And then you returned to a political position as the auto recovery czar, right?
After having been a dean at University of Maryland for a while, I went into the Obama Administration and worked on the auto task force. (We tried) to think about the GM and the Chrysler restructuring and what it meant to the communities and workers that were going to be affected by that changing environment.
What was your motivation to move from a prestigious school like Georgetown to Western Michigan University?
I spent a lot of my career trying to have an impact. I didn’t want to sort of spend my time just sitting in an office and talking to myself, but I want to be part of something bigger and make a contribution. (Western Michigan University) sits at a crucial juncture. It serves the men and women, the sons and daughters of this state, and education is evermore important. The university has this history of not just being a cloistered, cut-off kind of place, but being one that’s interwoven and has a fabric, and is the life of the community that it works in. To me, there’s not many places where you can have that opportunity to come in and have those impacts to take the place to the next step.
While you’ve only been at the job for a day and a half, what are some long-term goals you hope to accomplish during your tenure?
How do we make this the institution of choice for the region in the state? That means a couple of things to me. One, we have to make sure that our programming is continually being reinvented and relevant and changes with the needs of students in terms of their careers and the fields that they’re going (into). The university has a process of doing that; they just change their core curriculum. And how do we keep that going? We’re trying to create relevant programs. I want to create more highly rated programs in the areas of greatest need for both students and the public.
What are the other goals?
I want to help enhance the financial environment. Obviously, public universities face lots of challenges with securing funding, particularly those universities who have to be mindful of being open and acceptable so they can’t just drive the tuition rates up. There are challenges associated with changing demographic patterns, or perhaps challenges associated with changing funding from state governments and their ability to provide resources. How do we find a mixture that allows us to diversify, to find new sources of funding, so that we can make investments? It’s not just getting money to get money, it’s getting money so we can make investments in programming, in our faculty, our staff, our people, and strengthen this program.