Episode 53 - Innovation: Block Scheduling at the University of Montana Western

Dr. Rob Thomas, professor of geology at the University of Montana Western, joins us on this week's podcast from Dillon, Montana. Discussion revolves around the move the University of Montana Western made to a block schedule and the benefits of the approach.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions to Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I’m your host, Steve Meredith, and joining me as he always does is President Wyatt. How are you, Scott?

Scott Wyatt: Terrific, thanks, Steve.

Meredith: So, our listeners know that we very often record in a small bedroom at the Center for Music Technology at Southern Utah University and…

Wyatt: Small former bedroom…

Meredith: Yes.

Wyatt: [Laughs]

Meredith: We’re not working around the nightstands or anything, yeah. [Both laugh] Former bedroom. But, they also know, I think, that we pre-record these because the hardest thing about doing a weekly podcast is getting it scheduled. That is particularly true around a schedule as complicated as yours is, so, we are actually not in our former bedroom in Cedar City, but we are at the Big Sky Conference Basketball Tournament in Boise, Idaho as we are doing this and set up in portable gigs in a hotel room. So, I don’t know if I’ve painted a nice audio picture for our listeners, but anyway, here we are with a little portable setup in a hotel room in Boise. But one of the things that we’ve been talking about during this particular set of podcasts, this last ten or twelve or so, has been innovative practices that we really admire and are interested in learning more about. And, again, today we are talking to a very interesting and innovative educator, and why don’t you go ahead and introduce him?

Wyatt: Thank you, Steve. Yeah, we’ve got Dr. Rob Thomas, who is a professor of geology at the University of Montana Western joining us today from Dillon, Montana. Welcome, Rob.

Dr. Rob Thomas: Thank you, Scott.

Wyatt: It is nice of you to give us some time and you’re probably just as happy that you’re in Dillon instead of sitting in this little, cramped hotel room with us. [All laugh]

Thomas: Yeah, I’m just enjoying the snow. One of those years, keeps coming down.

Wyatt: Well, what’s…you have a very interesting story to tell about the University of Montana Western that was in kind of a crisis time and out of crisis, usually, we either die or something spectacular is born.

Thomas: Yeah.

Wyatt: So, let’s go back and let’s start with the founding of the University of Montana Western really briefly.

Thomas: Yeah.

Wyatt: Then let’s insert you into the equation. So…

Thomas: OK.

Wyatt: University…

Thomas: So, the…yeah, go ahead.

Wyatt: Yeah, I think 1893, right?

Thomas: Yes, that’s correct.

Wyatt: Started as what?

Thomas: So, it was founded as Montana State Normal School in 1893. There were four campuses chartered by the state in Montana, which became a state in the late 1880s and then very quickly established Agricultural Land-Grant Institution in Boseman, now Montana State University—University of Missoula, University of Montana at Missoula—School of Minds, which is now Montana Tech in Butte and a Normal School. And there were three communities in Montana vying for the Normal School: Deer Lodge, Twin Bridges and Dillon. And Deer Lodge got the prison [All laugh], Twin Bridges got the orphanage and Dillon got the Normal School.

Wyatt: It’s so fun to hear some of the comparables in history because Southern Utah founded almost the same time as a Normal School branch of the University of Utah and in a small, rural setting. But the difference is is that you continued to be a normal school for a very long time.

Thomas: Yes. Yeah, when Sputnik went up, most Normal Schools went down, and they became full-service universities with science and engineering programs. My undergraduate alma mater, Humboldt State University, for example, was a normal school in northern California. But this campus, maybe as a function of its isolation, lack of resources in the state of Montana, I’m not certain the reasoning, maybe just hidden down here in the corner of the state—it never transitioned out of being a Normal School. So, when I arrived in ‘93, we literally had elementary, secondary ed and early childhood education and that was it.

Wyatt: Those were the three majors.

Thomas: Those were the three majors and there was a Bachelor’s of Liberal Studies degree that had no titles to it, just BLS which was a fallback degree for students who decided that, you know, “If I had to teach fifth graders all of my life I would probably kill one [Laughs] so I’m going to not do that, I’m going to get a different degree” they could fall back to this BLS degree. But to my knowledge, nobody had ever used it, but it was one the books.

Wyatt: So, you had been where? Just prior?

Thomas: So, I had done my Ph.D. at the University of Washington and worked with the only female in a department of 55 males, Jody Bourgeois, she was my advisor. And my first job was at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York and I was a tenure line faculty member in geology and geography there and, long story short, got bit by a Lyme tick and I had Lyme’s disease and I was pretty sick, they were having a hard time figuring out what it was because it was early on in the whole Lyme disease crisis that was going on. But Dutchess County, New York is right next to Lyme County, Connecticut so I was in ground-zero there for the problem. [Laughs] And I loved the Vassar campus and the student body I was working with and all and I was inherently, I was a westerner and I wanted to be able to go out with my students into the mountains and throw a sleeping bag down on the ground and do geology and that was…it was road-cut geology with students who didn’t own sleeping bags back there. So, looking at it long-term, it was like, “I’d best get out of here before I can’t.” So, this job came up at Western, the advertised for a person to teach earth science, physical science and geography and because of the old Normal School, they were just hiring for classes that needed to be taught for the elementary and secondary ed majors. So, when I arrived, I came into an environment where it was the first time that they had ever in their 100-year history hired a geologist.

Wyatt: So, you had been at the University of Washington which is a big school in a big city.

Thomas: Yes.

Wyatt: And then in New York.

Thomas: Yes.

Wyatt: And now you’re going to Dillon, Montana. You must have felt like you were…and not just Dillon, Montana, but to what was probably the very last Normal School in the country.

Thomas: Yeah.

Wyatt: And a Normal School where the enrollment was how many students?

Thomas: There’s no way we had more than 600 FT on-campus when I arrived. There might have been a few additional students through the early childhood program, but I think we were probably sitting at 600 or 700 max FT total for the institution. The state of Montana had gone through multiple periods of looking at campus closures and so, there had been numerous attempts to close what was called Western Montana College of the University of Montana the year I arrived. There had been many attempts to close it, especially…actually going back as far as 1913 there had been attempts to close the campus. [All laugh] So…

Wyatt: OK, you were…

Thomas: It was on the edge and when I applied for the job, one of my advisors I remember, he’s a character, I talked to him on the phone when I asked him to write the letter of recommendation, reference letter, he said, “You might just get that Goddamn job. I’m not going to write that letter.” [All laugh]

Wyatt: You were kind of living on the edge with this.

Thomas: Yeah, it was…I think that I had been sick with Lyme’s disease, they really were not figuring out what it was. I had a doc at the university hospital in Seattle actually tell me at one point I might have Lou Gehrig’s disease. Those kinds of things get your attention, so, I think I came into it with an attitude of, “This is an opportunity.” To me, it was kind of like, “Disneyland’s open and nobody’s there.” It was an opportunity for faculty to come in and change the institution in the way that they wanted it to be, not the way in which it’s supposed to be. And so, right from the get-go, the first thing I did was I started working with my colleagues to use that BLS degree that we had on the books to generate a liberal arts program using the coursework for the secondary ed teachers because we could pull together liberal arts degrees out of those courses. There was enough coursework, for example, in English to certify a person in secondary ed English to also generate a liberal arts degree in literature and writing. So, the very first thing we did was generate…I don’t know, I think we had five BLS tracks that we did using these courses that the secondary ed people took. So, that’s kind of how we got started.

Wyatt: And you weren’t hired to do this.

Thomas: No. [Laughs]

Wyatt: You were hired to come and teach geology to those who were intending to be teachers. High school teachers.

Thomas: Yeah, I was hired to teach earth science, physical science and geography. [All laugh]

Wyatt: And you…

Thomas: And that was it. [Laughs]

Wyatt: So, I’m just starting to get his really wonderful image of you. That you’ve been in big cities, you’ve been in New York and you’ve gone through this personal health crisis and so, you step out on the edge, so to speak, but as soon as you arrive, you look at your job description and say, “That’s not what I’m here to do. I mean, I’m here to teach of course, but I’m here to do some transformation.”

Thomas: Yeah, I just thought it was an opportunity and I…

Wyatt: That’s really cool.

Thomas: I think it felt that way to me because there was a small nucleus of younger faculty at that time—we’re not so young anymore, but we were then—who were keen on doing something different. I don’t think that they knew what that would be, none of us knew what that would be, but we knew that we wanted to do something different. And so, we started with these basic liberal arts degree and I remember we formed a committee to do it. Program Pass Committee…Program in the Arts and Sciences Committee, that’s what it was. And we generated, again, four or five tracks in this BLS degree and that state was not…you have to recognize the state wasn’t allowing us to do anything. They were like, “No, you guys are a teacher school, that’s it. So, you can’t duplicate any degree that exists in the state of Montana. You can’t have an English degree, you can’t have a geology degree, you can’t have a chemistry.” So, we were really hamstrung. And one of the things I remember, so, in the very first year I was here I went to the board of regents meeting, they’re the governing body for the state. So, the state has a state board of regents that is appointed by the governor and run through the Montana University System in Helena, and there was this regent, which are just lay people that are appointed by the governor, and…

Wyatt: Yeah.

Thomas: And this guy was from Billings and he was this pint-sized guy, he was all hat, no body. [All laugh] And he came up to me and said, “Give me one good reason why that campus ought to be open down there in Dillon” and I knew that the LDS church had been looking at turning it into BYU-Montana and that it had been considered for conversion into the women’s minimum security prison, and I couldn’t come up with one reason why it should be open other than I kind of liked the job that I had just taken. And so, I said, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll give it some thought, and I’ll get back to you.” So, the next regents meeting I came up to him and I said, “Alright, I’ve now got an answer for you.” And he said, “OK.” And I said, “You all think that economic activity is all on the I-90 corridor, but I’m telling you that it’s coming up from the south on the I-15 corridor from Salt Lake, Pocatello, Idaho Falls and Boise and that if you want the state to be economically successful, you do not want them to see the junkyard in Monida and then get to the ghost town of Lima and then get to Dillon with its closed university and then arrived at Butte with its gigantic pit of contaminated water.” [All laugh] “And mine dumps.” And he said, “OK, OK, I get it.” And so…

Wyatt: Well, that is a pretty good way to describe it, that “We want our front door to look better.”

Thomas: Absolutely. So, in all that, I knew that…

Wyatt: And be better.

Thomas: I knew they didn’t care about education, they only cared about economics. And so, we…but I knew also was an epiphany for me that we had to have a reason to exist. So, we could not be a Normal School because you could get teacher certification at Walmart in ’93 and so we had to do something. And the first thing we did were create these degrees, and in fact, actually, although it seems ridiculous now, we created the first environmental sciences degree—which is my department now here—we created the first environmental sciences degree in the state of Montana and within two years, Missoula thought it looked good and they created their own. And so…

Meredith: Did they make you give yours back after that? Or did they let you keep teaching it?

Thomas: No, they let us stay.

Meredith: Oh, that’s good. [All laugh]

Thomas: Because ours was called a BLS in Environmental Science.

Meredith: That’s right.

Thomas: And so, it was different, we kept arguing it’s different. And so, it struck me right away that we couldn’t save this campus based on what we offered, we had to do it based on how we offered it. And so, it just hit me one day, I remember George Dennison, who was the president of the University of Montana Missoula and we reported to them, was on our campus basically to have a discussion with us about what we were going to do to save this place, and I went up to George and I said, I introduced myself and I said, “George, what would you say if I told you we were going to go onto the block system like they use at Colorado College?” And he paused and he looked at me and he said, “You know, my son goes to Colorado College.” And I said, “Now, I didn’t know that.”

Wyatt: What a coincidence.

Thomas: Yes. And then he said, “You know, I think that’s a great way to teach and learn” and then he paused again and then he got really close to me, George was a very confident person, [Laughs] and he got really close to me way invading my space and he took his right index finger and he poked me in the chest and he said, “You’ll never pull it off at Western.” [All laugh] And he poked me three times in the chest. [Laughs] And so, that afternoon I went to my colleagues and I said, “We’re going on the block.” [All laugh] So, I was able to make a hire, a colleague of mine, Sheila Roberts who…a geology professor, another geology professor kind of bridging the gap between chemistry and geology. You have to remember we had…there was one geologist, one chemist, one physicist and two biologists when I got here. That was our staffing in the sciences. Period.

Wyatt: Wow. My goodness, that is small. But then you only had 600…

Thomas: Right.

Wyatt: Students.

Thomas: But we were less…we had less staffing than the typical Class A high school in the state of Montana. And so, we were really behind eight-ball. So, we grouped together, and we formed environmental sciences but again, that wasn’t going to be enough to pull us out of the hole and everyone really wanted us to go away. I think, really, people wanted…outside of people in the Dillon community, the System wanted us to go away. And so, when we hired Sheila, Sheila got some money from a research group in the state, you know, just the research officers, and she got some money to travel down to Colorado College and I had a colleague down there in geology and so, I set up a visit for the provost and Sheila and I to go down there. And our goal was to go down there and write a feasibility report on Montana Western becoming a block school, the first public university in the history of the United States to go on the block. And my goal with it all was experiential learning. I wanted to turn Western into the experiential campus of the University of Montana. This is how I thought we were going to have a reason to exist. So that, while they were lecturing over Missoula and Bozeman and Tech, we would be the place people would go to go out in the field and actually work on projects because you had freedom from scheduling with the block system.

Wyatt: Which…

Thomas: Which was my only interest in it.

Wyatt: Rob, tell us…not to interrupt this great story…

Thomas: No, it’s OK.

Wyatt: But most of our listeners probably don’t know what the block schedule means.

Thomas: OK. So, Colorado College in 1969 invented—they probably invented, there’s some debate whether there was a school called Hysham in the Midwest that had it for…a variant of it in the 40s—but it was 1969 peace, love and dope and everything was possible. An administrator went around Colorado College and said, “If you could change anything about this campus, what would you do?” And an English prof I think it was said, “Give me my 15 students,” which was their student/faculty ratio “And no interruptions.” And that was the birth of the block. Where you take one class at a time for 18 instructional days, three and a half weeks, and there, everything is one credit, the typical private school system and we just converted it to four. So, as a public, every class would be four credits here taken one at a time, 18 days, you would take four of them per semester for 16 credits. So, a normal semester just broken down into four blocks. Month-long blocks.

Wyatt: Yeah, so instead of showing up for class, a student thinks, “Well, at 8 o’clock I’ve got English and at 10 o’clock I’ve got math…”

Thomas: Yep.

Wyatt: “And at 11 o’clock I’ve got geology.” What you’ve got is, is that you show up and you’ve got…the student has 100% focus on one class, you finish the class, and then you start the next class.

Thomas: Yeah. One of the…another epiphany that I had is I was teaching an intro to geology class and I got done and there were four students outside of the classroom and I could hear them and they were…one of them said, “Now, you’re going to go to chemistry and you’re going to go to English and you’re going to go to the business class…” They were dividing up the responsibilities of the courses because all they had to do were take notes. They didn’t really have to be there. They were 50-minute classes, right?

Wyatt: Yep.

Thomas: Three days a week and somebody was just going to yammer on for 50 minutes, so they just had to have somebody to get the notes. And nowadays, you can buy the notes for almost every class online. They are available and they’re available world-wide. You can get them for any university in any country. And so, I just knew that we had to move this place…our greatest weakness was our small size and I knew that was our greatest strength. Because the difficulty in having freedom from scheduling and working with students experientially where they’re engaging in authentic practice in the discipline is freedom of time. And you can only give freedom of time if you have small numbers to work with. If you’ve got to have 500 people in a lecture class, you just can’t do this because you can’t take 500 people out onto the stream. And…

Wyatt: I’m told that 85% of colleges and universities in America have, in their mission statement, experiential education as one of their core themes.

Thomas: Yeah, they nip around at the edges.

Wyatt: But you’ve taken this to a whole different degree.

Thomas: Yeah, this is a…we…I haven’t lectured…I don’t lecture. My classes are completely field, and project based.

Wyatt: So, tell me what I would expect if I was a student in your class?

Thomas: So, I’ve got an Environmental Field Studies class I teach in the fall and what we do is we go out and I get a project from one of the local agencies like Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks and so, for example, we’ve been working on the grayling in the Upper Big Hole. Grayling are down to about 1,000 due to mostly habitat destruction related to bad ranching practices. So, an agreement was struck between federal and state agencies and land owners to allow for habitat restoration in order for grayling to have a shot at making and not be listed on the endangered species list. And the work that they’re doing…nobody was doing any assessment of that work other than electroshocking to see how many grayling there were to see if it was working. So, what I do is I go to the land managers and say, “OK, what do you guys want…what do you need done?” And so, we went up onto the Big Hole valley up on the Big Hole Rivers about 40 minutes from campus and I leave at 8:00 or 8:15 in the morning with the student and we’re up there all day and they’re in hip boots and waders on the river doing stream cross-section profiles and assessing riparian vegetation and stability, using server samplers to collect macroinvertebrates and determine what the food resources look like for grayling in the stream, habitat surveys, all of it…sediment surveys. And then by about week…we’re up there for about two, two and a half weeks working every day, all day long. I typically get them back by 3:30pm so if they’re a student athlete they can make practice or if they’re in a job they can make it back by that time, and then by week three, we’re in the data analysis mode. They’re sieving sediments and counting bugs and using lab equipment to go through and do all of the analyses and then they go into report writing mode. And the reports are professional quality assessment reports. So, the one I’ve got sitting here in front of me is 456 pages long and we give them to the agencies so that they have assessment of whether their restoration work is actually working or not. So, it’s a real outcome that the students achieve from their work and…

Wyatt: Wow, and that goes for 18 days?

Thomas: Yes.

Wyatt: And then on the 19th day or whatever then they should up in an English class or something.

Thomas: They get a four-day break.

Wyatt: Four-day break.

Thomas: They get Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. We faculty are grading like mad and getting ready for the next block. [All laugh] But they’re off skiing at Maverick Mountain. [Laughs] So, it…yeah. We’ve got this, you know, you’re drinking from a fire hose. But, you know, one of the things I always like to point out, one of my math colleagues when we first went onto this in 2005, he said to me…he came down to my office and he looked like something that the dog had drug out from underneath the porch and he looked at me and he said, “I’ve never been so tired in my life.” [Laughs] And I thought, “Oh boy, this is not good.” Because I’m the great Satan of this whole thing and if this is southwest Montana, they’ll lynch me. [Laughs] If this goes poorly. And he looked at me and he said, “But it’s a good tired.” [Laughs]

Wyatt: So…

Thomas: He said…

Wyatt: Oh, go ahead.

Thomas: He was just so excited about what he had just done in that block and I’ve never seen a faculty member like that before. [Laughs]

Wyatt: So, if…

Thomas: No grousing.

Wyatt: No grousing.

Thomas: No griping.

Wyatt: And what does math look like for 18 days?

Thomas: It’s really cool. They’ll give these guys…they give the students a problem set to work on in the morning. Some of them are real data, they’ll collect…they’ll take data from us. So, for example, we’ll partner with…it’s so small that you know everybody so somebody who is teaching probably might gather some data from project bug counts that I’m working on in an Environmental Field Studies class and they’ll take those data and they’ll use those data and many of those students took the environmental field students class and collected…some of them collected those data. And they’ll learn math using those data and they’ll be given stuff to work on and they’ll kind of be left to work on it for a while and then they’ll come back, and they’ll go over it with the professor. And so, in many ways, it’s really a great way to learn math. When we went down to Colorado College to check them out and write that feasibility report, I remember we went to the math people because I asked my colleague down there, “Set me up with the people that hate this system. I don’t want to talk to the people that like it. Set me up with the people that hate it.” And he said, “OK, I’ll set you up with math.” And I’m like, “No surprise there.” So, I go in and I talk to this math prof and I said, “So, my friend says you guys don’t like the block?” And he said, “Who said that?” And he said, “No, that’s just bologna.” He said, “Come here, follow me for a sec” and I follow him and we went into this other room and there was a…one of these mobile chalkboards and there was a couch and he had a calculus class and it was like a calc three group and they were working on a problem and he said, “You see this group?” And they were yelling the screen at one another, all these students, and somebody was up at the board, and he said, “I gave them a problem earlier in the day and they’ve been at it all morning long like this fighting with one another over the solution to the problem. And you can’t do that in 50 minutes.”

Wyatt: No, you can’t.

Thomas: And it was like, I thought, “This is the best math teaching I’ve ever seen.” And we’ve just taking it maybe a step further in that we’re incorporating projects from all disciplines across campus into these math courses. We have a Survey of Calc class take and the faculty member teaching it, Tyler Seacrest, he comes to me and he gets things like flow meters and things like that from me and he actually takes them out into the field and collects data.

Wyatt: What does a literature class look like?

Thomas: Umm…I think it’s…the way to sum up all of it really is it’s authentic practice in the discipline. So, writers write, literature people read literature and argue over the meaning of it. [Laughs] And that’s what’s happening. So, they’re engaged in activity and having a longer duration of time and flexibility…the key is freedom from scheduling so that the faculty member can set up that day between 8:15am and 3:15pm however she or he thinks it should be set up for the best learning outcome for that topic. And so, it varies by person. There’s a real lack of uniformity and that’s good. [Laughs]

Wyatt: Yeah.

Thomas: We’re trying to not be like anyone else, and that…class by class.

Wyatt: Have you tried…have you done some assessments to see how learning…

Thomas: Oh, yeah.


Thomas: Yeah. So, I pulled some numbers for you because I gave a talk at a national meeting of the Geological Society in Seattle a couple years ago and so, the…we did a Nexus survey. The national survey…a student satisfaction survey engagement…

Meredith: Engagement, yeah.

Wyatt: Yeah.

Thomas: Right, engagement survey. And the participation was high. 72% of first student, 94% of seniors participated. And you have to note, our numbers are at 1,500, so, we went from 600 students and we peaked at 1,501 a couple of years ago and we have the highest growth rate of…we had anyway a couple of years back the highest growth rate of any campus in the University of Montana System.

Wyatt: So, students like…

Thomas: Or, in the Montana University System. In the whole System. Pardon?

Wyatt: Students are liking this?

Thomas: Oh, yeah. So, the Nexus survey…so, 61% of the students reported that they were having field experiences and 86% were reporting that they were engaged in service learning. And these are the highest rates for both of those categories in the whole Montana University System. Retention, our fall/spring retention rate is over 90%.

Wyatt: That’s pretty good.

Thomas: And our persistence rates fall/fall are about 90%.

Wyatt: Those are good numbers.

Meredith: Very high.

Thomas: Those are…

Wyatt: Those are numbers that anybody would be happy to have.

Thomas: Vassar could be so lucky. [Laughs]

Wyatt: What’s your graduation rate?

Thomas: OK. So, degree completion…135% increase in the total degrees awarded since 2004. That was the year we were not on the block, in 2004. We went on it in 2005. So, we had 135% increase in degree completion from 2005—or 2004, rather, pre-block—to 2013, or 2015, rather, and that’s the highest percent increase in the Montana University System. Course completion, first year student course completion average since 2010, which is during the period of time we’ve been on the block, that was at 96%. So, students are completing their courses. 96%...

Wyatt: That’s really great.

Thomas:…Are completing their courses. And then graduation. We increased 25%...our six-year graduation rates increased 25%. That was the largest increase in the MUS. And our employment is the highest in the MUS. 80% of our graduates are employed in their field within one year of graduation.

Wyatt: So, do they still want to close this down?

Thomas: No. [All laugh] We’re the…[All laugh]

Wyatt: It sounds to me like you’re a leader in the state now?

Thomas: Yeah, it…that’s going too far. I think what happened was, initially, I got over-exposed for this. I was the Carnegie CASE U.S. Professor of the Year. That had never happened, ever, in Montana and a variety of other things. But then there was a string of award not, only for faculty, but for the campus itself. I mean, we were consistently ranking in these rankings, for what they’re worth, in the top three for our category, which is undergraduate baccalaureate public. And the only list we ever ranked in before was “Who was going to be closed first?” Us or Montana State Northern up in up in Havre. [Laughs] And so, yes, we definitely became the “golden-haired child” in the system but, honestly, I still think that we’re…we live in a society where bigger is better and so, the emphasis is still all about Cat-Griz, football and what’s going on at the big campuses. And I think everyone is really they don’t have to think about us down here, but I don’t think that they’re thinking that much about us.

Meredith: But you’ve at least carved out a niche that…

Thomas: We did carve out a niche.

Meredith: So that your imminent demise is not imminent anymore.

Thomas: Absolutely. We saved the campus. And faculty did it. We had our provost. Karl Ulrich was with us and deserves a lot of credit for helping shepherd it the whole process through, our Dean of Outreach and Research, Anneliese Ripley, she was the one that helped us get a FIPSE grant which ran a pilot. Because, the story is way too long for a podcast, but we hit a day called Black Tuesday when everything fell apart and we had a literal meltdown with the public on this campus over block scheduling. The public, the community was very opposed to this and the regents were very opposed to it and the commissioner’s office and, remember, the president of Missoula poked me in the chest and said we’d never pull it off.

Wyatt: Right. So…

Thomas: So…

Wyatt: They’re all happy. They’re all happy that you’re not doing well. [All laugh]

Thomas: We were pretty dead in the water in the late 90s with it and then we got a FIPSE grant and it funded a pilot, and that pilot is really how this happened here. Because the pilot, we brought in 75 students and we put them through their gen-eds in cohorts of 25 one class at a time. And the retention rates to the fall…from the fall to the fall were like 96% in that first cohort. And the chancellor at the time, Steve Holbert, he knew that we had to do this because he had achieved the goals of the FIPSE grant. And FIPSE (Funds for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Ed) is designed for…if you show that this unique thing that you’re going to do—they only fund the most kind of radical changes—and if what you’re proposing is found to work, you had better adopt it or you’ll probably never get another FIPSE grant again. So, long story short, we adopted and went onto it in 2005 and then these numbers have occurred since 2005 that I’ve been giving you.

Wyatt: Well that’s…

Thomas: And so…

Wyatt: That’s an inspiring story. It’s inspiring because, number one, it seems that most innovation occurs at the threat of death. That there’s got to be a crisis of some type.

Thomas: Yes.

Wyatt: In order for people to be motivated.

Thomas: I agree.

Wyatt: Yeah. And so many schools are good, but how in the world do you take “good” to something really special when most everybody is quite satisfied with good? But then the other part of this that’s so amazing is that this was a grassroots effort. This was the faculty, a brand new faculty member that shows up and says, “I know where I arrived, and I know this place is going to die and I’ve staked my career on this. Let’s reinvent.” That’s really cool.

Thomas: Yeah, and the willingness of other faculty to give it a shot, even those who did view me as the great Satan and thought this wouldn’t work. I give as much credit in many ways to the detractors. We learn from the detractors a lot. And we just tried to keep professional. And I think it was successful because it’s grass-roots, came from the faculty and so, there was buy-in at that level. When I went to Washington, D.C. and I lobbied the FIPSE grant administrator to do this, he started laughing. And I said, “What?” And he said, “This is the greatest idea I’ve heard. It’ll never happen.” [Laughs] And I said, “Why is that?” And he said, “Well, the faculty will never do it.” [All laugh] And I said, “I have the faculty.” And we had done a poll and I had…we had 84% of the faculty willing to give this a shot when I went to FIPSE in 2001 or whenever that was. And so…

Wyatt: Wow.

Thomas: That was key. That was key. And it was very important that we had some administrators like Karl and Anneliese who were there…who were both…could help shepherd us through the administrative processes because we had people from the Dillon community going to the regent’s meetings and taking the mic at the podium at the public statement periods and just trashing us as individuals. Not just the block, but me personally and some of my colleagues who were involved in this. And so, to actually get it to happen, it did require some guts on the behalf of some administrators to stay with us. The first chancellor that we tried to get this done under was Sheila Stearns, who I’m close friend with now, she became Commissioner of Higher Ed in Montana and eventually one year as the president of Missoula and then retired. And I know that Sheila…Sheila left shortly after Black Tuesday when it caved the first time around. And I told her…we were discussing it once and I think she was expressing regret that she didn’t get it done and I said, “Look, you could have stopped us at any time, and you didn’t.” So, by not stopping us, she played a hugely important role in making it happen. And she had every reason to stop us because the Dillon community was up in arms over this. It was literally…I think I’m suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from having gone through it. [All laugh] So, it’s not just the faculty. I mean, it’s absolutely essential that the faculty make this happen and I’ve done consulting all over the United States on block scheduling and making this transition for other publics and the first thing I tell them is that it’s got to come from the faculty. Because you just can’t make that horse drink from the trough. That horse has to want to drink from that trough. They have to build the trough. [Laughs]

Wyatt: Well, I just feel like the best thing to say is, “Congratulations.” This is amazing.

Thomas: Thanks.

Wyatt: Innovation is so hard to do, and it seems harder to do in universities than just about anywhere because we’ve got this tradition that just goes back so long.

Thomas: Yeah, I agree.

Wyatt: It’s hard to envision a different world.

Thomas: I agree. That was a tough thing for my colleagues. When we got it, there was a moment for a lot of us—me too—it was like, “Uh-oh, now we’ve got to do this.” And I think geologist, in fact I’d be so bold to say it, geologists kind of get this system because we have a month long field camp system that we go through that I had taught all my career for Princeton University and now University of Houston. And so, we are used to immersion scheduling in authentic practice in the discipline through the field camps. And so, it’s very natural to geoscientists I think, this kind of learning, maybe not so natural to, say, somebody in math or in English. But I give huge credit to my faculty colleagues because they have the guts to say, “OK, this is…what I know is 50 minutes of lecture three days a week and all of my life this is how I was educated and this is what I know, and I’m going to throw that out and I’m going to experiment until I figure out what works using this system.”

Wyatt: Rob, was…

Thomas: And…

Wyatt: Oh, go ahead.

Thomas: Go ahead.

Wyatt: Sorry.

Thomas: No, I just think they deserve a huge amount of credit for being willing to do that. And I have to say that I think that at a time when there’s a lot of negativity in higher education, people are uninspired and they’re pulling the paycheck, which is a horrific thing to happen to faculty members, we don’t do this for the money. It’s a passion. And yet, I see tremendous amounts of negativity out there and so, to me, one of the most…one of the best things about this is that faculty were genuinely excited about using this system, figuring out a way to use this system.

Wyatt: Well, and when you and the rest of your faculty went down this path, you have to have been thinking, “If this fails, we’re dead.”

Thomas: Definitely.

Wyatt: This is…

Thomas: I mean, I knew that I would have to leave town because they would kill me. [Laughs]

Wyatt: I mean, if you continued in the same strategy that you had always been done, there might be hope of pulling this out.

Thomas: Yes.

Wyatt: It’s certainly not high-risk because you had been this way for a hundred years and there had been talk about closing it since 1913.

Thomas: Yep.

Wyatt: So, the odds are OK, momentum, keep going, but once you stepped off the cliff and said, “We’re going to block” you had to have in the back of your mind, “If this fails, the campus is going to be closed down. This is all they need for the excuse to finally lock us up.”

Thomas: Yes, and I think, to the credit of the folks in the community who were so concerned that they were willing to go to a board of regents meeting and take a mic and speak against us and the approach that they thought the same thing.

Wyatt: Yep, that’s right.

Thomas: They were thinking exactly the same thing. These…

Wyatt: “These knuckleheads are going to ruin it for us…”

Thomas: “These knuckleheads are going to…”

Wyatt: “And we’re going to lose our community.”

Thomas: Yes. “They’re going to take this place,” yes. Absolutely. And so, they deserve…I understood that. I really don’t have ill will towards my fellow members of the community over the tough years of getting to the block. But it took us 11 years from the day that I got poked in the chest by George Dennison to the day that we adopted campus-wide it was 11 years.

Wyatt: And you went from about 600 students to what? 1600?

Thomas: 1501.

Wyatt: All of your outcomes are up.

Thomas: Yes.

Wyatt: Enrollment is up.

Thomas: Yes.

Wyatt: Finances are good.

Thomas: Yep.

Wyatt: Nobody wants to turn back and undo this.

Thomas: No, no. The great thing…here’s a great story real quick. So, there was a fellow at a local restaurant who was really opposed to it and I had…I knew him, and I had his wife in a class of mine before we were on block. And every time we were in that restaurant he would come over to me and he would really give it to me over the block. That this was a bad idea, we shouldn’t do this, this is a bad idea. And…

Wyatt: Right, he goes out of business if you fail.

Thomas: Yes, absolutely. And he was really worried about how he was going to get workers for his business on this schedule…people just didn’t understand it. And so, we were into it about five years and I was in one day and I had my whole class, I bring…my Structural Geology class is taught completely in the field and the last day is a field final and then as they are making their maps and writing up their reports I have them do that down at this restaurant and I buy them pizza. And this fellow, Paul, came over to me and said, “I’m sure glad that we…” We. [All laugh] “I’m sure glad we went to the block system.” And I thought, “We won the war.”

Meredith: Yep.

Wyatt: “We won the war.”

Thomas: “We won the war because they think it’s their idea.” And that’s what we wanted, right? We wanted them to believe in it and like it and think it was their idea, that’s great. And so…

Wyatt: And everybody’s proud about it.

Thomas: Everybody. You couldn’t find a person, I think, that thinks the block is a bad idea. It is universally liked and it’s now starting to catch on in Montana at other places. And I get calls from CEOs at some of the other campuses and “Would you come talk to our faculty about this?” And so on, and so there’s some…it’s starting to catch a little. And there’s ways to downsize it for bigger places as well. I’ve always fantasized about generating an honors college…honors colleges are wasted on students who are already going to be successful. And I, as a first generation, low income kid myself, I think that honors colleges, there should be honor’s colleges now generated using the block system where you take high-potentially, high-risk, at-risk students and you put them through their gen eds one class at a time in cohorts in experiential threaded classes where there are themes that tie the subjects together and those students are going to be successful at rates that nobody has ever seen before in the United States.

Wyatt: That makes perfect sense because they come in, they are able to focus, they build a really good relationship with a faculty member, they create this cohort of friends that they see all day, every day.

Thomas: Yep.

Wyatt: They feel a sense of belonging and they see that their education has a real purpose to it. You’re out…

Thomas: Absolutely.

Wyatt: You’re out doing genuine research.

Thomas: Real stuff, yep.

Wyatt: And there’s a connection between that and a job.

Thomas: Absolutely. These guys walk out with portfolios filled with examples of what they can do, not just a listing of classes. And that absolutely plays a role in our really high job placement rates. These students all…they’re building the work experience while going to school that all of the employers want. And so, when they ask them, “Can you operate this piece of equipment?” “Yes, I did that in this class working on this project doing this stream restoration study” etc. And it lands them jobs and it gets them into grad schools. Grad advisors love these students because they are ground ready. They know how to do projects.

Wyatt: Well, Dr. Thomas, this has been fascinating. Congratulations.

Thomas: Thanks.

Wyatt: And thanks for spending time with us and thanks for giving us a great example of innovation in higher education. Finding challenges and…

Thomas: You bet, it’s my pleasure.

Wyatt: I hope it spreads.

Thomas: Me too, me too. It will only be successful if it spreads. It can’t just stay here, you’re right. That’s crucial.

Meredith: You’ve been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. We’ve enjoyed having as our guest today Dr. Rob Thomas, professor of geology from the University of Montana Western in Dillon, Montana. We thank Rob for joining us and we thank you, our listeners, for listening. We’ll be back again soon, bye-bye.