- Associated Press - Friday, March 7, 2014

GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) - The Montana Board of Regents have approved Montana State University’s plans to spend the first part of a $50 million gift from a private donor to plan and design a new College of Engineering building.

The regents voted unanimously Thursday to allow MSU to spend up to $5 million from the donation by Norm Asbjornson, the founder and president of heating and air conditioning manufacturer Aaon Inc.

Asbjornson said he donated the money to provide more space for the college and help engineering students collaborate with people in other fields. He graduated from the school in 1960 with a degree in mechanical engineering but said he felt “a little short in being able to relate to other disciplines.”

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“It’s an absolute must to take Montana State to the next level and make it better than the competition,” he said.

Asbjornson spoke in Great Falls, where the regents were meeting Thursday and Friday.

The board is considering $128 million in construction projects and deferred maintenance, including a $10 million private donation to build a new Montana Museum of Art and Culture at the University of Montana.

The Missoula school also wants $10 million in state funding to renovate its science building, and another $10 million to build an addition to its music building.

“The needs across the system are significant. The deferred maintenance is significant,” said Clayton Christian, the state’s commissioner of higher education. “We have to come up with a list that represents what we think is the right mix of investments for the state.”

Deputy Commissioner John Cech said the university system is working with its two-year colleges to create tiered certification programs to help students enter the workforce faster.

The schools are using a $25 million U.S. Department of Labor grant to create the different levels of programs. A student will be able to enter the workforce with a basic certificate after completing the first tier, or may choose to move on to the next level of study, Cech said.

The initial first-tier certificates will be presented for approval by the state in May, and will include programs in welding, diesel mechanics, industrial electronics, energy technology and entrepreneurship.

The regents also approved Montana State University’s plans to add a new master’s degree and minor in optics and photonics.

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