When you talk with Edward Montgomery, Western Michigan University’s new president, every answer is punctuated with a smile and a laugh.
But don’t be deceived. The 61-year-old who took the university’s helm on Aug. 1 has a serious side.
After all, Montgomery holds master’s and doctoral degrees in economics from Harvard University. That’s serious stuff.
His research has focused on state and local economic growth, wage and pensions, savings behavior and productivity, social insurance programs and unions. Again, serious stuff.
He worked as deputy secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton and then as a member of President Barack Obama’s auto task force, leading the inter-agency White House Council for Auto Communities and Workers — serious, too.
And he commuted to work in the infamous Washington, D.C., traffic. Now that’s really serious.
But even a discussion of traffic evokes humor from Montgomery. “I will go from an hour to an hour and a half commute to about a three-minute commute — unless I walk,” he says. “But I don’t think I can walk slow enough to make it a back into an hour-and-a-half commute. But I could adjust.”
For Montgomery, coming to WMU is a return to something he missed during his time in D.C., something he calls “that Midwest culture.”
Montgomery lived in Minnesota before his family moved to Pittsburgh when he had just finished second grade. In both cities, Montgomery recalls, the “neighbors came out to see you and say hi, and you were always bumping into people you knew, and people were always very friendly. For me, coming back to that is highly desirable.”
Montgomery is not alone in this feeling. His wife, Kari, who grew up on a farm in Portland, Michigan, felt a strong pull to be closer to her family, including a sister and the aunt and uncle who raised the two of them after their mother died when Kari was 12.
“People will ask, ‘What’s in Michigan?’ and I answer, ‘My home and my life.’ It’s where I was raised,” she says.
That pull was also part of the reason the couple’s son, E.J., attended WMU, graduating last April. He has chosen to stay in the area, taking a job in Kalamazoo.
An ideal challenge
For Edward Montgomery, who admits he’s “ready for a new chapter,” taking over at WMU —with three sprawling campuses in Kalamazoo and more than 30,000 students, faculty and employees — presents a challenge well-suited for his experience in government and academia.
“I think there’s also a challenge in enrollment. We need to think about how we keep access to higher ed for all the students from the state and region. We’ve got a good thing here, and we want to get it out to other types of individuals. We do a great job with 18- to 23-year-olds. But what about the 45-, 54- and 64-year-olds? Can we reach those individuals and make what we have accessible to them?”
As an “anchor institution” in the region’s economy, WMU is critical to the area’s well-being, Montgomery says.
“Our prosperity and ability to reach and prosper requires the region to reach and prosper,” he says, “and as we reach and prosper, if we are doing it right, we should bring the region with us.
“If they’re not doing well, we can’t be doing well, and vice versa.”
By key economic indicators, the area served by WMU is doing well. Unemployment is at 3.6 percent (as of May) and wages are rising, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. New jobs have grown roughly 2 percent.
But the area has its challenges.
A 2017 report by the Michigan Association of United Ways (the parent organization of the United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region) reports that 36 percent of Kalamazoo County residents and 59 percent of Kalamazoo residents live in poverty. (The organization’s “ALICE Study of Financial Hardship” uses a measure of poverty that includes families with adults who have jobs but are not bringing in enough income to pay for basic needs.)
Many well-paying jobs in the region, from construction to health care, go unfilled because of the shortage of workers with the education, training and skills needed to fill those jobs.
For Montgomery, the community’s and university’s fates are “intertwined.”
“If the community is struggling, depressed and blighted,” he says, “then people won’t want to come here, faculty won’t want to work here, students won’t want to come here, so we need the community to be doing well to be a magnet to be attractive.
“As a university we bring 24,000 incredibly talented, energetic smart young people to the table who are interested in their education but also interested in the world around them. Our faculty are wonderful resources that the community should be able to tap into. It’s good for faculty, too, because it gives them a natural lab, a place to apply and do things in their own hometown.”
Since he’ll be working with a board of trustees that includes key area business leaders, Montgomery says he is sure he will not be isolated in an ivory tower away from the area’s issues. In fact, he is determined that there will be ongoing interactions between the community and university.
“Sometimes our job is just to get out of the way, sometimes it’s helping them to organize, sometimes it’s just being in this dialogue,” he says. “The mayor should be my BFF (best friend forever) because we are both good for each other, and we should figure out ways to make everything we do be in line. We have a mission as an institution, but that mission is made stronger by our community partners, not made weaker.”