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In 2013, a group of faculty and staff members sounded the alarm: The University of Montana needed a strategic enrollment plan.

"A comprehensive ... plan that states our enrollment goals for all student types does not exist, nor has enrollment management been linked to other campus strategic objectives," said the report from the Enrollment Management Working Group.

UM's enrollment had dropped in 2013, and it did so again last year — and this year.

The strategic plan still does not exist.

"We had a lot of recommendations out of those working groups, so we are moving rapidly as time and resources allow to implement the good ideas that came out of those working groups. And so I will just say that all that is in some stage of progress," UM President Royce Engstrom said in an interview.

Last week, Engstrom announced major cuts at UM, citing a "structural budget situation." The reductions are intended to address a decline of some 2,400 students since 2011 and come on top of cutbacks announced earlier this year.

UM will eliminate 201 positions in its 2017 budget, including 52 faculty jobs. University officials refused to provide financial figures tied to the "budget situation."

In his announcement, Engstrom ticked off the reasons enrollment has slipped on campus, highlighting as he has in the past the economic downturn and the popularity of engineering.

Liberal arts programs are struggling nationally, and UM officials are quick to point that out.

Elsewhere in the country, though, some schools and business leaders are subverting the narrative.

Some campuses are touting the strengths of the arts and sciences, and post-secondary institutions in the U.S. have conferred an increasing number of degrees over the past decade in areas of study that are strong at UM. 

For instance, the number of degrees going to health professionals has more than doubled in 10 years, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. More degrees also are going to "communications, journalism and related programs."

In the business world, entrepreneurs are demanding workers who can think and communicate in clear and creative ways. Forbes ran a story in July with this headline: "That 'Useless' Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech's Hottest Ticket."

The University of Montana, then, has nearly every ingredient in place to be a recruitment powerhouse.

Leaders at UM, though, have been unable to harness the university's strengths. Now, it isn't clear whether they can act fast enough to turn the tide.

Last week at Engstrom's budget forum, the lack of support for liberal arts and concerns that the cuts would send already compromised programs into a tailspin emerged as a theme from members of the campus community.

Linda Frey, a history professor, said she did not want UM to lose the liberal arts mission that has traditionally defined the campus, yet she feared the direction the president was leading the university would dismantle its core.

"I'm concerned that the shift to MSU with the liberal arts mission will be definitional for us, and it may be something that we will regret in the long run," Frey said.

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Maxwell Nelson wanted the president to confirm that the cuts targeted the humanities. Nelson, a senior political science major with a specialty in public administration, said the plan appeared to be an attempt to tap the STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — fields for growth.

The president agreed. He said students are not attracted to the humanities the way they were in the past, so those programs would be adjusted but would "absolutely" stay in place.

"They are the programs that are struggling with enrollment. And, yes, there is a correlation there with the humanities, and I am deeply disappointed that is the case in our country today," Engstrom said.

It isn't the case everywhere, though. Some schools — small liberal arts colleges as well as large land-grant institutions — are reshaping curricula to weave together the humanities and sciences with rich outcomes for students.

Bill Spellman, director of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges, said the 28 schools in the group are defined by "interdisciplinarity." According to its website, the council "has been advancing the cause of liberal arts and sciences in a public college setting for more than a quarter century.

"Our campuses are very focused on finding intersections between history and literature and the applications of those fields in professional fields like management and accountancy or the STEM disciplines," Spellman said.

With a median enrollment of 5,000, the schools are much smaller than UM, and some of the campuses are facing enrollment challenges of their own.

Others, though, are flourishing. The council is committed to making the case for the liberal arts and sciences, and Spellman said evidence shows professionals need the skills they will learn in those programs.

"They need to have the sort of skills — the reading, the research, the speaking skills — that allow them to be nimble in jobs that don't even exist yet," Spellman said.

One top component necessary to success is developing a campus that feels like "a singular community," not one with faculty hunkered down in separate departments, he said.

For example, the University of North Carolina in Asheville requires 16 credits in the humanities with freshmen studying the ancient world, sophomores looking at medieval history, juniors exploring the modern world, and seniors delving into contemporary studies.

Faculty from virtually every discipline teach the course, he said.

"You're bringing to students this sense that learning isn't about exclusively one discipline. It's about crossing disciplinary boundaries, asking questions," Spellman said.

One larger state university has pushed the liberal arts as well. The land grant Oregon State University has traditionally had a focus on agricultural science, forestry and engineering.

"We also have, increasingly, a strong emphasis on the arts and sciences," said Steven Clark, vice president of university relations and marketing.

In the past 12 or so years, the president has strengthened the liberal arts, and business and elected leaders tell him it matters, Clark said. Their message?

"While it's great for graduates to have exceptional skills in their degree area, such as engineering, in this global economy, and in this world, civics, leadership, communications, and a strong knowledge of history are essential for people to be successful in the future," Clark said.

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