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Board of Regents

The Montana Board of Regents meets at Montana Tech in this file photo.

Plenty of people have blamed President Royce Engstrom for budget woes at the University of Montana.

Engstrom is the captain of that ship in Missoula, and the enrollment decline turned into a financial crisis under his watch.

Last month, he announced the problem had turned critical, and he outlined the skeleton of a plan to fix it and solicited feedback. In response, some members of the campus community decried his proposal for hurting programs in the humanities and for lacking vision.

But a longtime faculty member and former union leader at UM said forces far beyond Main Hall are setting the course of UM, academically and financially.

In Montana, the Board of Regents of Higher Education supervises the public university system, and UM faculty member Doug Coffin said it is playing a strong role, tacitly or otherwise, in the state of affairs in Missoula.

"People talk about Royce's leadership," said Coffin, professor in biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences. "The University of Montana is being run out of Helena. It's not being run in Missoula."

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In President Engstrom's budget announcement Nov. 17, he said programs "targeted for staffing adjustments" include journalism, anthropology, English, geography, liberal studies, art, political science and forestry management. He also named three Missoula College programs: carpentry, building maintenance and recreational power equipment.

He proposed strengthening health care and human development, data and computational science, business and entrepreneurship, ecology and the environment, and "workforce-specific programs."

In his remarks, Engstrom described the changes as impactful, but he said "the sky is not falling."

"We were an exceptional institution when we had an enrollment around 13,000 a few years ago, and we will continue to be an exceptional institution," he said. "Quality and excellence abound in our students, faculty and staff."

At the meeting, Engstrom responded to a student's question by confirming that the cuts would target the humanities, although the president said the programs would 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.

As Coffin sees it, the direction the proposal sets forth reflects the Board of Regents' answer to a national debate over education.

In broad brush strokes, one camp believes a college education should offer students an experience that provides intellectual growth and critical thinking skills, and the other camp views higher education as a training ground for distinct careers.

Former Congressman Pat Williams, a prominent Missoula Democrat who served as a regent for one year, said he was reluctant to comment on the direction the regents should take. However, he said he believes a traditional liberal arts education should be a priority in the U.S., and the trend is going the other way across the country.

"I would say that the general movement in America toward workplace education at the expense of liberal arts is a serious mistake," Williams said. "Four-year institutions, whether they have the curriculum of the university at Missoula or at Bozeman, are absolutely vital."

Williams, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1979 to 1997, said he believes Montana has the right mix of two-year and four-year educational opportunities. In his time as a regent, from February 2012 to April 2013, he did not observe a bias toward job training over traditional education.

"There is this sense around the country that, 'Well, we've got to be training for the workforce,' as if four-year schools like Missoula don't train for the workforce. Of course they do. It's just that they don't turn out plumbers, per se," he said.

In the 1970s, he said, the Montana Legislature had significant discussions about how postsecondary institutions should educate people for the workforce. In response, he said, the state created the two-year colleges.

But he said it didn't intend to do so at the expense of the four-year schools.

"If they now become competing, that would be a significant mistake," Williams said.

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Over at least the past year, the relationship of education to industry has been front and center on the regents' agendas.

In January, Gov. Steve Bullock "applauded the Board of Regents for their continued exemplary achievements in ... innovative opportunities to help Montana's education system be ready for the workforce needs," according to meeting minutes. The governor appoints members of the board, and the state Senate confirms them.

A couple of months later, the governor "reiterated the importance that our state college and university system understand the needs of private industry and are ready to use innovative practice in training the workforce in an efficient manner." The board heard an update from the Montana Department of Labor on its collaboration with the university system.

"Their joint focus has been on new ways to leverage partnership opportunities between the two agencies with special focus on two-year education, workforce development and apprenticeships," according to the minutes. The update included a report on federal grants awarded to Montana, some $52.4 million for community college and career training from 2011 through 2014.

In September, Commissioner Clay Christian reviewed the Montana Legislature's allocation of $15 million for research in higher education: "The common goal here is to solve Montana problems and grow Montana jobs by converting university-based research into private sector growth and scientific solutions."

In another discussion item, the regents heard about specific workforce programs of welding, fabrication and diesel technology.

At least over the past year, the meeting minutes did not reflect that programs in the humanities held a leading role in board discussions, whether in relation to workforce development or otherwise.

"They are in essence carving out the humanities tumor from public education that they don't see has a role in the modern economy. So there is an agenda here from Helena," Coffin said.

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Board chairman Paul Tuss could not be reached Thursday for comment on the role the regents are playing in the academic direction of UM. 

However, Kevin McRae, deputy commissioner for communications for the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, earlier said the regents support the way Engstrom is moving forward. The president announced a plan, which is being shaped by input from constituents, he said.

In recent years, UM has been making needed adjustments, and its budget planning shows support for the humanities programs, McRae said.

"When they did start, for the last three years, having to make those midyear changes to meet revenue reductions, they held humanities more harmless than any other college or department," McRae said.

In a letter to UM faculty, Commissioner Christian said Engstrom "has challenged the university to adapt to the changing needs of students, employers, communities and our state." He said UM must review programs for "relevancy" to student demand, enrollment, and return on investment in quality of life or economic development.

"We also strongly support President Engstrom's insistence that as UM moves forward, care and diligence will be applied to ensure that UM retains its tremendous strength, identity and mission as a flagship liberal arts university," according to the Dec. 2 letter to faculty.

In their comments, faculty at UM have demanded support from the president for liberal arts programs as key to a strong and dynamic workforce. The Faculty Senate summarized comments in a report posted on the website of the Office of the President.

"Some commenters perceived your remarks as promoting scientific, technical and vocational programs at the expense of the liberal arts and humanities," according to the summary. "Many of those remarked that it is a false dichotomy because professional programs rely upon the critical thinking, communication and problem-solving skills that the liberal arts develop."

In a recent email to the campus, Engstrom acknowledged the desire to support UM's core mission: "I want you to know I have heard the strong message regarding the centrality of the liberal arts to our university. They will remain strong and vibrant."

The regents have not had a public discussion about their role in relation to the financial struggles at UM since Engstrom held his budget forum in November. The board's agenda for its January meeting had not been posted as of late last week. 

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