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University of Montana President Royce Engstrom announced major cuts last week tied to a decline of some 3,000 students since 2010.

On and off campus, community members are asking if the quiet and thoughtful University of Montana President Royce Engstrom is the right leader to guide the flagship university through yet another trying time.

"I've heard the question asked: To what extent can he handle the crises?" said David Beck, a professor of Native American studies and former department chair. "Judging just on the condition that we're in now, the answer would be that he could have handled them better."

Some faculty are even calling for a vote of no confidence in Engstrom.

Just three months after declaring UM could fix its budget woes through attrition, Engstrom announced massive staff and faculty cuts were imminent.

A written summary by the Faculty Senate of more than 120 emails regarding the president's proposal noted faculty's concern about the "lack of powerful vision for the university." The summary of comments called for a re-commitment to the liberal arts and research.

"(Faculty) also questioned the ability of the current leadership to chart a successful course out of the current predicament. There were calls for a vote of no confidence or for letting administrators go from their current responsibilities," read the summary.

The budget emergency comes just a few years after UM and its athletics department – as well as local government agencies – were in the spotlight for failing to hold rapists accountable. It also comes hand in hand with dropping enrollment.

Engstrom's recent announcement has left many on campus feeling anger and frustration. Some faculty question the president for appearing to short the liberal arts, and some have concerns he is slow to action and misdirected at the helm.

The president and his supporters, though, note he has turned around past problems.

"The University of Montana has seen many tremendous successes in recent years," Engstrom said in a statement. "Some come from challenges we’ve faced, such as campus safety regarding sexual assault, where we now are seen as a national leader.

"The current budget and enrollment scenario is a challenge from which we will emerge stronger and well-positioned for continued success in the future. It is my role as president to lead change in our current situation in the most humane and respectful way for our employees and members of the campus community."

Other leaders on and off campus have confidence Engstrom's integrity and historical perspective are right for the times. Among them are Mayor John Engen and some staff and faculty leaders at UM.

"I think he's a steady hand at the tiller, and I think it's distinctly possible that he can help UM weather this storm," said Stephen Lodmell, a professor of biological sciences and former chair of the Faculty Senate.

In the written summary, comments from faculty were invited by the president and directed at his plan, not his leadership. However, the report characterized supporters of his proposal as a "small handful."

Heightened scrutiny of the president comes at a time UM appears to be in the shadow of Montana State University in Bozeman in a robust time. MSU President Waded Cruzado has the reputation for being a bold leader, and the Bozeman campus is seeing enrollment soar.

"That's a great time to be a leader in higher education. It's a lot tougher to be a leader when things are going the other direction," said Liz Putnam, UM associate professor of molecular genetics and toxicology and another former chair of the Faculty Senate.

***

The criticisms aimed at the president are varied. Among them are a plodding or misguided approach to pressing problems, poor recruitment and fundraising efforts, and lack of transparency.

Doug Coffin, a professor in biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences, said he believes the time is ripe for the Faculty Senate to take up a resolution of confidence or no confidence in the president's job performance.

"They should have that debate because it's a public university, and I think the public wants an answer to that question," Coffin said.

A vote of no confidence does not mean the Montana Board of Regents would automatically fire the president, he said. And he said the president could come out on the other end with a vote of confidence.

"I would be OK with that. Getting rid of Royce Engstrom is not going to solve our problems," said Coffin, who believes leadership problems also lie in Helena.

A resolution was not on the agenda of the Faculty Senate as of late Friday afternoon, but it isn't too late for the leadership to post an additional item.

Engstrom does not begrudge the conversation around leadership.

"A university is a place for broad and vigorous – and, yes, dissenting – dialogue; and being president means I hear from many, many stakeholders across the campus, across town and far beyond," he wrote. "We all have the same goal: building an ever more transformative and exceptional education for our students and creating new knowledge and leaders that improve the world around us."

Beck, former chair of the Faculty Senate, said part of the problem is a lack of transparency, and the sentiment is echoed in the summary of faculty comments.

"We don't know the extent of the problem," Beck said.

In his initial "budget forum," the president announced layoffs to align expenses with revenues, but he did not cite any dollar figures.

Beck and others want the administration to provide the numbers that back up the direction Engstrom wants to take UM. For instance, faculty want to know the specific faculty, staff and other positions the administration counts as additions since 2008, especially since some programs experienced decreases. 

"We don't even know how many people that means are going to lose jobs," Beck said. "We don't know the relationship of that to the budget numbers ... We don't know what the relationship is between the university and the Board of Regents.

"We don't know if the board is directing this."

Engstrom, though, counters the criticism he isn't being open. In fact, he said, he appreciates the passion students and employees have for UM, and he is cultivating inclusion on campus. 

"Since becoming president I have taken particular delight in the achievements of our students, our faculty, our staff and our graduates – and in the passion that people who work across UM bring to our workplace. I also take pride in being accessible, and building a culture of openness, collaboration and access across campus and the Missoula community," he said in a statement.

***

Others fault the president for being ineffective in pushing for adequate funding or seeking alternatives to cuts.

Michael DeGrandpre, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, declined an interview. However, in a series of emails circulated to faculty and administrators, DeGrandpre said he wanted to hear the administration's strategy for fighting for more money in the future.

More effective recruitment does not seem likely, and cutting jobs "is self-destructive," he said. Yet UM faces a possible $12 million shortfall.

"It's absolutely clear that we will need either more support from the state or an increase in tuition or we will witness the systematic dismantling of this institution over the next few years," DeGrandpre said in the email.

"I don't understand why the administration would request inadequate funding levels during the last biennium while agreeing to a tuition freeze (a clear recipe for disaster).

"In fact, our funding levels have never been adequate."

On the other hand, he said, the state general fund is flush. The summary of faculty comments estimated current reserves at $400 million and suggested the pool could be tapped to help UM.

"Several suggestions ... were made, including pursuing temporary funds to help the university through this crisis," according to the comments.

Faculty suggested asking for help from the governor, Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education and the Montana Legislature. In this arena, some see Cruzado as a savvy player.

In 2013, Coffin served in the Montana Legislature, as did a faculty member from MSU, Rep. Tom Woods. At the time, Coffin said, the president of MSU helped Woods, a Democrat, get onto a committee that appropriates money for the university system.

"That immediately makes all the regents answer to him," he said. "It was a coup. It was a total coup."

By many accounts, Engstrom is more deliberate than shrewd.

"He's an extremely affable guy, and most people view him as honest and with the university's interests always at heart," Lodmell said. "The spectrum has more to do with the perception of whether his style and performance are well suited to the current financial crisis that we're in right now."

***

Some believe Engstrom is equipped to help UM thrive.

"At this point in the evolution of the problem, I think that President Engstrom is the right person simply because to expect anyone to come in without knowing how this has evolved and then try to right the ship, so to speak, would be difficult," Putnam said.

She also said Cruzado has her own challenges, with faculty on the brink of revolt just a couple of years ago.

"Would you want President Engstrom to be a little more vocal sometimes? Well, sure. But that's not his personality," Putnam said.

And Lodmell said leadership styles can be different, but flashier doesn't necessarily mean superior: "I don't think one style is automatically or unambiguously better than the other."

Even some who call for greater transparency acknowledge Engstrom has been more inclusive than former President George Dennison, known as "King George."

Staff Senate chair Jennifer Zellmer-Cuaresma said it's easy to see greener grass on the other side, but Engstrom and his Cabinet have listened to concerns and requests in a way the previous administration did not.

"President Engstrom is definitely more collaborative, and he tries to see the big picture and how it's going to affect everybody, and that's what I have seen the most," said Zellmer-Cuaresma, an athletics academic adviser.

***

Some community members see Engstrom's track record more than his personality as the referendum on his ability to lead.

"Royce inherited a lot of this," said Barbara Theroux, of Fact and Fiction bookstore, which is affiliated with UM.

When UM was in the limelight for letting rapists go unchecked, Engstrom offered a resolute response, she said. He took on the athletic department and made hard decisions.

"He went in and he cleaned house, and it was done," Theroux said.

Mayor Engen, who sees UM and the city as inextricable, agreed. He said Engstrom's sincere and dignified leadership can be mistaken as ineffective, but he took swift action when UM and the city and county were under federal scrutiny for sexual assault.

"He demonstrated clear leadership there. He was decisive. He made decisions that were in some circles really unpopular, but he did what he believed was best for students," Engen said.

Engstrom, though, doesn't take credit for his own work, the mayor said. The president has also had a full plate since he came on board, largely due to circumstances he did not create.

"He's been sort of cleaning up messes since 2010, and that makes it really difficult to articulate let alone execute a vision," Engen said.

But the president has been pushing on a vision as well, he said, and he believes Engstrom has earned the support of the community and is equipped to guide it to a more halcyon time.

Gordy Pace, at UM for 27 years, said he sees members of the campus community standing behind Engstrom, too. Pace, director of IT Communications, also said the president isn't the only leader on campus.

"Certainly, there are some folks on campus who are driving this narrative that ... he's not leading. ... From my colleagues, I don't think that's a majority opinion," Pace said.

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Higher Education Reporter

Reporter for the Missoulian