Academics and athletics are hardly ever joined at the hip, but at the University of Montana they share space under the same dark cloud of across-the-board budget cuts caused by the dramatic drop in enrollment over the past two semesters. More than 1,200 students, with the possibility of another 1,000 less for the upcoming fall semester – all contribute to an estimated $8.6 million shortfall for the coming academic year. Teaching and staff positions are being eliminated while athletics, already laboring under a $150,000 hit last fall, is preparing for the loss of an additional $400,000.
The litany of widely publicized problems including sexual assault cases resulting in a conviction, an acquittal and the bungled handling of a third involving a Saudi student; the untimely departure of three longtime key staffers through resignation and a pair of still unexplained terminations; a long, drawn-out NCAA investigation – and rising campus unrest – suggests that there are even deeper issues plaguing the university. The need to downsize the class catalog hasn’t deterred Main Hall from adding a seemingly superfluous new position, Vice President for Integrated Communications, to an already top-heavy administration.
This spring UM chose to promote style over substance with yet another rebranding; this one sporting the wishful motto “Thrive.” The cliché works better for Montana State University, which under the leadership of President Waded Cruzado saw its Fall 2012 enrollment rise by more than 500 students with an aggressive student recruitment style that continues to widen the gap, attracting an even greater share of the best and brightest graduating from Montana high schools.
Mutual woes aside, there is a major disconnect between UM athletics and a beleaguered faculty which views itself equal to its peers at the region’s primary public universities from Wyoming and Utah to those in Washington and Oregon. Meanwhile, after 50 years, Grizzly intercollegiate sports remains obdurate in its unwavering commitment to the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision-sanctioned Big Sky Conference – even though many of its members rank as second- and third-tier academic institutions. The 2013 U.S. News & World Report of the top 200 national universities based on freshman retention, graduation rates and strength of faculty includes only four schools from the BSC, with the UC Davis at No. 38, followed in order by the University of North Dakota, MSU – and UM in a three-way tie at No. 199.
Past and present department insiders opine that there has never been a formal study detailing the costs required to effect a move to the Football Bowl Subdivision. When the college football landscape was turned upside down in 2011, UM had not yet performed the due diligence needed to determine if a move would even make economic sense. UM season ticket holders pay FBS prices for the state’s biggest tailgate party – 50 percent more than what Washington State and Wyoming fans pay to watch PAC-12 and Mountain West Conference competition. It speaks to an institution distracted by hollow image fixes while ignoring the potential benefits of a historically successful program still laboring in an alliance offering miniscule national exposure. While each MWC member receives $2 million annually from lucrative TV contracts, UM continues taking in about $100,000.
People who truly care about the university should demand that the Commissioner of Higher Education, the Board of Regents and the governor replace their silence with a stated course of action for resurrecting a university that has clearly lost its way. With rare exception, Helena continues following an established path of least resistance, looking inward to elevate veterans of the system in a practice that only perpetuates a numbing status quo culture. Regents in particular deserve censure for tiptoeing around the turmoil visited on the Missoula campus with an ill-considered leadership choice.
The timeworn practice of making comfortable inbred hires must end. Lacking the appearance of a skilled and experienced administrator equipped with unshakable objectivity, UM will continue its aimless drift. But the first step in fixing a problem is acknowledging having one, which seems to be a problem in itself for Montana’s higher education decision-makers.
Doug Hacker is a graduate of the University of Montana and a former industrial film and radio/tv scriptwriter who currently resides in Denver.