When the Alumni Challenge Athletic Field Corp. formed in 1912, it raised $25,000 to promote the general welfare of the University of Montana.
For the next 25 years, the group – which later became the University Development Corp. – worked to acquire tracts of land tucked away in the southeast corner of the Missoula Valley, envisioning a day when UM might need a place to grow.
That day is now at hand and UM will again turn to the Montana Legislature this winter, making its third attempt to secure roughly $47 million to build a new Missoula College, the first academic building planned for the 210 acres comprising the South Campus.
“The whole purpose for the purchase of that land, way back in 1928, was for the greatest use and benefit of the university,” said Rosi Keller, the associate vice president for administration and finance at UM. “We’ve used up all the areas on the Mountain Campus. There’s a need for us to expand, and folks as far back as 1928 shared that vision.”
Proponents believe that expanding to the South Campus is necessary to accommodate the university’s goals of competing in what UM President Royce Engstrom has dubbed the “global century,” which includes a new emphasis on research and attracting research partners.
Missoula College – known until recently as the College of Technology – also is in need of a new facility and location, one more closely positioned with UM. The college remains the only two-year program in Montana that hasn’t been funded for a major upgrade by the state.
“The existing facility is old, small and nowhere near what today’s students need for an education of the standards we expect at UM,” Engstrom said. “Missoula College would be the first building on the new South Campus of the university, setting the stage for the next century of growth.”
UM has grown over the last decade, building out its main campus with new facilities and growing its enrollment by several thousand students. Missoula College also has experienced rapid growth, leading the state in that trend.
In 2002, the two-year college enrolled just 930 students. When Barry Good took over as dean in 2006, enrollment had grown to 1,200 students. Last year, it topped 2,800 students for the first time; this fall’s enrollment sits at 2,467.
Good said the affordable two-year college continues to accept new students, even though it ran out of room to accommodate them long ago. It also accepts laid-off workers looking to retrain, including those who lost their jobs when Stimson Lumber Co.’s Bonner mill and Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. shut down.
“We’ve had tremendous growth here,” Good said. “For the past 10 years, we’ve seen a 120 percent increase in full-time student enrollment. That’s a tremendous increase.”
Figures kept by the Board of Regents suggest Missoula College remains the fastest-growing two-year school in the state, with a 123 percent increase in full-time student enrollment between 2001 and 2011.
The school outpaced the College of Technology at MSU-Billings, which grew 122 percent over the same period. The COT at MSU-Great Falls grew by 69 percent, the UM Helena COT by 58 percent and Montana Tech COT by 31 percent.
To accommodate the growth and meet its mission, Missoula College has been forced to purchase or build trailers to make room for students. They study in cramped spaces while faculty hold private sessions with students behind partitions. The computer lab is overflowing and a quality atmosphere for study is nearly impossible given the current arrangement.
Good said that while companies have come to the school looking for program development to train employees, the college, at times, has been unable to accomodate the requests, costing Montana potential jobs and businesses looking to locate to the state. Good believes the school has now reached a point that its programs will begin to suffer if funding for a new facility isn’t found.
Supporters have tried twice to win that funding, only to be turned away by the Legislature empty handed.
“We’re at the point where everything is stretched,” Good said. “We still have excellent programs and services, but those services might start to suffer, and we don’t want that to happen.”
Talk of growing UM to the South Campus isn’t new. The conversation began in 1964 when the University of Montana was still known as Montana State University-Missoula.
Back then, planners saw the South Campus area as a place to accommodate several activities supporting instruction on the main (or mountain) campus. Such talk remains ongoing and now includes UM’s push to emerge as a research institution.
But despite planning efforts and 18 months of public meetings, the South Campus concept has detractors, including Jack Lyon, who believes public comments were largely ignored in the scoping process.
“Any plan to locate Missoula College on the South Campus guarantees a fragmented campus for as long as it takes to recognize the enormity of the mistake,” Lyon said. “The half-mile between the (mountain) campus and the South Campus guarantees a fragmented in-town campus.”
Lyon also believes the South Campus plan in general is absent of vision, citing what he perceives as a lack of predicted future enrollment. Opponents also dismiss the university’s need to locate Missoula College and UM closer together.
“Since it’s not possible to get from the South Campus area (of Missoula College) to the mountain campus (at UM) in the 10 minutes between classes, this argument is at best fictitious,” Lyon said. “A counter argument would suggest that sending one instructor to the West Campus (of Missoula College) makes far more sense than expecting 20 to 50 students to transfer to the main UM campus for each class.”
Many opponents, including those who want to see the University Golf Course preserved on the South Campus, continue to lobby the university to grow at Fort Missoula.
But the university has countered that Fort Missoula sits in a floodplain, has limits due to its historic significance, and is too far away from the mountain campus, given that it’s located on the opposite side of Missoula.
University officials and planners believe that placing Missoula College on the South Campus would resolve both the issue of location and crowding, and set a new development trend for the next 50 years.
The South Campus Master Plan currently calls for a 120,000-square-foot Missoula College building at Arthur and South avenues, just a few blocks from UM’s mountain campus.
“Location is important,” Engstrom said. “Missoula College’s students take many classes on UM’s mountain campus. The two-year college needs to offer those students easy and quick access between the two locations. We simply cannot take a fragmented approach to the long-term planning for UM.”