UM campus

The University of Montana's main hall.

Kurt Wilson, Missoulian

Quality could be a casualty at the University of Montana if the flagship campus endures further enrollment declines – and related budget trouble.

Last year, UM cut its budget – "slashed" it, in the words of one faculty leader – to address falling enrollment, and the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education recently praised university leaders for aligning UM's expenses with enrollment.

Shortly after that, UM announced another drop in enrollment at 4.8 percent, even as its sister flagship, Montana State University in Bozeman, announced an equivalent jump in headcount.

As budgeted, UM's current unrestricted expenditures for the 2017 fiscal year are just a hair below its spending in 2011. MSU's spending, on the other hand, is slated to increase by roughly 50 percent over its 2011 amount.

At UM, the downward trend in enrollment — 24 percent since 2010 in full-time equivalent students — and ensuing budget squeeze are putting significant pressure on faculty. Instructors are giving up travel research, going without desk phones, and teaching double the class load.

"There are breaking points, and sometimes you can hear creaks in the ship," said Paul Haber, president of the University Faculty Association. "And that is worrisome."

UM needed to reduce its work force, he said, but now, it's "straining to maintain quality." He would like Montana citizens, the Board of Regents, Gov. Steve Bullock, and legislators to know UM needs help and further cuts in the name of efficiency could endanger the health of UM for the long term.

"I'm a bit worried that they're not aware of the stress points that have been created at the university," Haber said.

Even as UM is under duress, MSU appears to be financially thriving. According to the Commissioner's Office, though, the current formula for disbursing money to campuses is buffering UM and sending it more dollars than it would have received in the past.

President Royce Engstrom said he is grateful for the funding formula that aims to protect institutions from enrollment fluctuations. As of several years ago, campuses get state money based on an average of three-year enrollment rather than on a single year's data.

"Certainly, it is not working exactly in our favor at the moment," Engstrom said. "But you know, any buffering factor would be a bit challenging for us under the current conditions."

***

More than 20 years ago, the Montana University System designated as flagship campuses UM in Missoula and MSU in Bozeman, according to the commissioner's office.

The term "flagship" isn't defined, but it generally connotes a university with top rankings and offerings.

Enrollment has fluctuated at both campuses since, and with it, state dollars. This year, though, the disparity is great, and the growth and financial strength of MSU far surpasses UM's.

According to data from the Montana University System, UM's current unrestricted expenditures for the 2017 fiscal year isn't far off from its expenditures in 2011. MSU's spending, on the other hand, will have increased by roughly 50 percent since 2011, as projected.

Unrestricted Expenditures UM MSU 
FY11$152.9M $148.6M 
FY12 $156.1M $154.5M 
FY13 $158.6M $172.7M 
FY14 $154.7M $179.5M 
FY15 $159.9M $190.3M 
FY16 $156.5M $204.8M 
FY17 (Budgeted) $152.6M $225.1M 

In the course of five years, MSU spent $543 million in research and development money compared to UM's $308 million, according to MUS data.

Research & Development UM MSU 
FY11$63.9M $102.8M 
FY12 $61.5M $112.3M 
FY13 $59.3M $110.9M 
FY14 $58.3M $109.6M 
FY15 $64.6M $106.9M 

As the state land grant institution, MSU also receives many more dollars from renewable resources. In 2015, MSU earned $3 million compared to UM's $264,000, although that money goes toward items such as debt and may not be used for operational expenses.

The university system's strategic plan notes the regents aim to "protect institutional viability by moderating the short-term effects of enrollment changes," and that they want to ensure equity "among all institutions" in disbursing money from the Montana Legislature. 

"How these funds are allocated is central to every strategic objective of the board," reads the budget allocation portion of its strategic plan.

Commissioner Clayton Christian said the dollars follow the students – as they should. And the flagships should be evaluated on their relationship to quality, not to each other.

At the same time, he said, UM had a record level of funding last year, and this year, the dollars per student hit a record, too.

"It's the highest per-student funding that it's ever had," Christian said.

According to MUS data, UM’s spending per-student is budgeted at $14,102 for the 2017 fiscal year; MSU’s per-student spending is budgeted at $15,228.

***

A balance in the state's flagships isn't a goal in and of itself, and noting the disparity as a problem is like saying "some students have chosen wrong," said Kevin McRae, deputy commissioner of communications in the Commissioner's Office.

UM would have even less money than it has right now if the university system hadn't started using three-year averages, he said. UM is also getting more money because roughly 10 percent of the allocation is based on performance measures, such as graduation rates – and in all the performance measures, UM does well.

In general, the purpose of the funding model is to direct money to students – "not to serve as some kind of bailout to gamble on enrollment," McRae said.

Certainly, UM needs to work on enrollment, Christian said, but as he sees it, the current funding model offers equity across the system.

"If you're the one with smaller enrollment, you may always wish it was different, but I think it's a fair model," Christian said.

***

The quality of education at UM is high by many accounts and measures. In his State of the University Address this fall, President Engstrom listed achievements, among them:

  • The business school is ranked 18th in the nation on CPA exam pass rates, "the only school in the northwest in the top 20."
  • UM set another record for external research funding – at $87 million – "a key performance indicator" for a university.
  • Media arts faculty member Greg Twigg was nominated for an Emmy and since shared in a win along with several former students.
  • Six recent graduates were selected as Fulbright finalists.

Last week, Engstrom said UM has a bright future and will continue its stellar record, and he has no concern it will become a secondary research institution in Montana.

"The fact is, we have more graduate students than the rest of the Montana University System combined," Engstrom said.

The president also said an institution's status is defined more by its quality and its programs.

"Enrollment is not the predominant factor that determines the mission of an institution or the status of an institution," Engstrom said. "The University of Montana is and will remain a top-quality institution for the state of Montana.

"All of our trajectories are in a positive sense except for enrollment, and that is why it is the subject of intense efforts on all of our parts at this time."

***

Clearly, the size of an institution doesn't dictate its quality, but the years of declining enrollment and budget at UM are stressing the campus, Haber said.

Haber, in the political science department at UM, said the reduction in force has him worried about maintaining excellence as the campus grows. He sees faculty members grossly overloaded and resources that support research and innovation shrinking or disappearing.  

"You get to a certain point (that) a particular program or a particular department is under such strain that it starts to decline," he said. "And then, you get a negative cycle going. That's what I'm most concerned to prevent."

For example, the master's in public administration program is in desperate need of another faculty member, he said. Just two faculty members devote themselves exclusively to the MPA program.

One is teaching eight to 10 courses a year with roughly 25 students each, he said, "basically double what you would reasonably expect a full-time faculty member to do when he's also taking care of research and publication and other service obligations at the university."

In the recent cuts, operations took a hit, and as such, travel money.

"Our travel budget was essentially annihilated," Haber said of political science.

Academics is a collaborative enterprise, and travel money allows faculty to be active in their fields, he said. Those dollars allow instructors to do research with graduate students – and the best undergraduates – as they mentor them.

"We really can't be as good a faculty if we're not alive in our discipline, if we're not intellectually engaged with our peers in our communities," Haber said.

Faculty Senate chairman John DeBoer said instructors need to "dream big" in order to put forward new curricula. So far, faculty have been savvy about finding ways to continue their work, but the limited funding could hurt UM down the road.

"It's harder to innovate and develop new curriculum in a cash-strapped environment," DeBoer said.

***

State Sen. Dick Barrett, D-Missoula, a retired economics professor from UM, said the university workforce could shrink some more if it doesn't increase its enrollment. It aims to hit a student-to-faculty ratio of 18 to 1, and it can do so by either bringing in more students or getting rid of faculty.

"Both of those are possibilities. I think faculty reduction is a reality," Barrett said.

UM is a large ship that will take time to turn around, and he believes the operational cuts could undermine the university's goal to grow. 

As such, Barrett and other Missoula legislators are working on a proposal that would offer short-term financial assistance to UM while it recovers.

The details are still in the works, and the lean state budget will make any request challenging, but the need is apparent; he said UM is struggling despite the buffering offered by the state funding formula.

"I think what we're seeing at the University of Montana is it's not addressing it well enough," Barrett said.

***

Commissioner Christian said he generally would support more funding for the university system, although it might be easier to get approval for money that develops a specific program — especially since there's precedence.

In the last four years, the Board of Regents has supported UM in part by approving 55 new programs, he said. That's nearly double the number of new programs it has approved for MSU.

"It's those type of things that I think the board is doing to help be responsive to them meeting the needs of students and making certain their curriculum is relevant to attract as many students as possible," he said. 

"The board is very aware and very interested, as is my office, in the health of the University of Montana and seeing that it continues to prosper."

DeBoer, Faculty Senate chairman, said he looks forward to collaborating with the Commissioner's Office in getting UM through its low point.

"I think it's in the best interest of the regents and the Office of the Commissioner to have two thriving universities that provide the anchor for our comprehensive statewide education," DeBoer said.

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Reporter for the Missoulian