The Montana Board of Regents adopted campus operating budgets Thursday totaling roughly $1.55 billion for the 2018 fiscal year, but they likely will return to the budgets in November to address a cut in state support of up to 10 percent.

"We're getting a lot of feedback and certainly warranted concerns about where this budget is headed and how budget reductions may impact us," said Commissioner Clayton Christian.

He said the regents will reconvene after the state certifies revenue projections, and the governor's office determines the amount it aims to cut.

This week at their meeting in Butte, the regents and other higher education officials heard projections of tight budget seasons ahead but also celebrated a private gift to the University of Montana.

The regents approved Thursday the naming of the Dennis and Gretchen Eck Hall in the Liberal Arts Building at UM in recognition of an $8.3 million gift.

"We thank the regents for their support of this recognition," said UM President Sheila Stearns in a statement. "The Ecks’ generosity has created an exceptional learning environment in one of the busiest buildings on campus."

Dean Chris Comer said the donation increases the capabilities for teaching and upgrades the backbone of a key building on campus. There, the College of Humanities and Sciences fulfills roughly 80 percent of all general education requirements for students.

"It's the home of the humanities on the campus, so very important," Comer said.

***

At the meeting, regents heard an overview of the budget for the Montana University System and also saw enrollment projections and budgets for campuses.

A presentation from Tyler Trevor, deputy commissioner for budget and planning, showed the state's share of support for education dropped from 76 percent to 38 percent in 25 years. Montana remains nearly last, 46th in the nation, for total state funding per student.

Commissioner Christian said the university system has made up some ground the last few bienniums. However, he said UM ranks in the bottom third of the percent from every dollar that goes to public higher education, and compared to other states, Montana is under-spending.

"We continue to rank low in terms of how we compare to other states' investments," Christian said.

Regent Bob Nystuen, however, noted that the state's share differs among the campuses. At UM, it's 41 percent, but at Montana State University–Bozeman, it's 26.8 percent, the lowest in the system.

Nystuen wondered if campuses getting less weren't able to have as much impact as they otherwise would.

"Are we shortchanging them at the expense of other campuses?" Nystuen asked.

Trevor, though, said evening out the numbers would cause pain for the other campuses, and the pot was small.

"There's not a lot of state support to go around," Trevor said.

***

Early projections on enrollment show a total 1.2 percent decline from last fall to this fall for all campuses, according to Trevor's presentation.

UM budgeted for a 7.3 percent drop, or decline of 767 full-time equivalent students; so far, the drop isn't as steep, at 5 percent this year to date, according to the presentation.

"It's moving in the right direction," Trevor said.

The data also show a 6.4 percent increase in non-resident graduate students at UM, and a couple of other populations haven't slipped as much as projected.

However, UM counts a 20 percent drop in student full-time equivalents over the last five years, according to the data.

UM has struggled with its budget in recent years partly because of the decline in enrollment, and the presentation noted that 89 percent of its budget is going to personnel compared to the national benchmark of 75 percent.

"This obviously is at the heart of some of the financial struggles that this institution has," Trevor said.

***

The commissioner also offered an update on the search for a UM president. Campus visits by four finalists will take place over the next two weeks, and President Stearns said public forums will be broadcast on MCAT, Missoula Community Access Television.

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Reporter for the Missoulian