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.

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 fields for growth – science, technology, engineering and math.

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.

OSU has bucked the trend in terms of enrollment in the liberal arts, and on purpose, he said.

"We don't compete against the University of Oregon. We actually are trying to be an internationally recognized public research university while remaining Oregon's land-grant university," Clark said.

The strategy pays dividends for students.

In 2012, a study showed OSU graduates earn on average 50 percent more at mid-career than graduates of other universities, he said. It also showed they are involved in their communities 60 percent to 70 percent more than their colleagues from other schools.

"We take pride in that," Clark said. "People are saying, 'What is the value of a college degree or university degree?' Well, for Oregon State, it's very high."


In recent years, national publications have highlighted the undercurrent of support for people with backgrounds in liberal arts. They can read a room, surprise customers with creativity, distill complex information and drill into processes.

"Throughout the major U.S. tech hubs, whether Silicon Valley or Seattle, Boston or Austin, Texas, software companies are discovering that liberal arts thinking makes them stronger," according to the July 2015 Forbes story. "Engineers may still command the biggest salaries, but at disruptive juggernauts such as Facebook and Uber, the war for talent has moved to nontechnical jobs, particularly sales and marketing."

In an analysis of LinkedIn data, Forbes found that 30 percent of Northwestern University graduates who moved to the Silicon Valley in the past decade landed jobs in engineering.

"Add up the jobs held by people who majored in psychology, history, gender studies and the like, and they quickly surpass the totals for engineering and computer science," according to the story.

Military academies are growing the liberal arts, according to an October 2015 story in The Atlantic. A professor of sociology at West Point told the Atlantic that cadets who graduate from there "will be in charge of people's lives. We want to make sure they have the ability to not only make decisions but reflect on the consequences of those decisions for themselves and for everyone else involved."

In June, another Forbes story cited the growth of liberal arts colleges in Asia. It quoted Chester Goad, of the Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, who said Asian countries are finding inspiration from the U.S.

"Just as the U.S. begins to move away from traditional liberal arts programs and turn to specialized-only programs, Asia is discovering there is a benefit in the creativity and well-rounded perspective that comes from a liberal arts education," Goad said in the story.


At least monthly, UM's public relations office touts a prestigious award going to a faculty member, an exceptional achievement by a student or a groundbreaking discovery by a researcher.

"University of Montana professor Doug Emlen has been named the 2015 Montana Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education," read one announcement last week.

He earlier won the E.O. Wilson Prize from the American Society of Naturalists, among other awards, and Emlen isn't the only standout. Steve Running in the College of Forestry and Conservation is a climate scientist who shared in a Nobel Peace Prize, and Jakki Mohr in the School of Business is internationally known as an innovator in marketing high-technology products. 

The campus is quintessential, too.

Ryann Carlson, a student senator, said she toured several different colleges and universities before landing at UM. She chose Montana for financial reasons, but she said the stunning grounds make a deep impression on young people.

"Of course, the Oval is a very powerful place to stand as a high school student because it looks like every college you've seen in a movie," Carlson said.


To date, though, UM's leaders have been unable to propel the institution forward or to act nimbly in the face of opportunity.

In 2012, the Harvard Business Review called the data scientist "the sexiest job of the 21st century." Years ago, some schools began offering master's degrees; UM offers a certificate.

The university isn't doing enough to weave disciplines together, either, according to some students.

Bronte Burnette, a senior with a minor in women's, gender and sexuality studies, said UM needs to do more to build programs across curricula. For example, just two faculty members teach most of the courses in her minor, she said, although the school could draw on instructors from other disciplines.

"You're really only getting two professors' take on your learning, and not the variety of professors you'd get at a different learning institution," Burnette said.

She said the situation isn't isolated.

"The focus isn't on creating the best liberal arts institution that we can. I think the focus is on creating the image of a liberal arts institution," Burnette said.

"Once you get into classes ... it might not be what they sold you."


UM appears to stand at a critical juncture if it's to be the dominant institution it has reason to be.

In an interview, President Engstrom admitted the university has fallen short in the past, and he outlined its focuses going forward. UM had been lax in its bid to bring students to campus, including nonresidents, and it should improve its message about the "tremendous opportunity" it offers through the liberal arts, he said.

"Our own recruitment efforts have not been as robust as we need them to be," Engstrom said.

Going forward, he said, the new vice president of student affairs will also oversee enrollment, and will be tasked with forming an enrollment management plan. UM also overhauled its recruitment efforts, and it's seeing an uptick in inquiries.

In talking with prospective students, Engstrom touts the quality of its academic programming; the breadth of its programs, from one-year certificates to doctoral degrees; and the value placed on the traditional arts and sciences. He points out the beautiful locale.

"All of those things combine to make a tremendous learning experience," he said.

This fall, UM held a conference called "Defining a 21st Century Education for a Vibrant Democracy," aimed at preparing people for the professions of today's world and developing global leaders, he said. As part of the agenda, UM brought U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez to Missoula as a keynote speaker.

The gathering was intended to illustrate the importance of leadership and an engaged citizenry, and that UM's programs lead the way.

"We do need to be better at telling the world about that message and the importance of the disciplines that we offer here to the workforce and to the leadership," Engstrom said.


Engstrom also identified challenges: a shrinking high school population in the state; a campus that was in the public eye for rape; parents who want their children to be engineers and earn good money.

This fall, Montana State University's enrollment grew to 15,688, from 11,934 in 2002, a gain of 3,754, according to Tracy Ellig, executive director of University Communications.

"MSU's College of Engineering accounted for 39 percent of the university's headcount enrollment growth from 2002 to 2015," Ellig noted in an email. 

According to UM, 32 percent of freshmen who entered MSU in 2014 chose a major UM does not offer, and 37 percent did so in 2015. The headcount at UM is roughly 13,000 this year.

The difficulties UM has addressed in the past and continues to face are real. The opportunities are abundant as well, free to be seized or squandered.

Get local news delivered to your inbox!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.
You must be logged in to react.
Click any reaction to login.