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The University of Montana campus

The University of Montana campus in Missoula is pictured in this file photo.

When the University of Montana brought on its first vice president for enrollment, it was with a wad of cash and assurances of success.

The Montana Board of Regents approved an unprecedented $70,000 hiring bonus with no strings attached — the first such benefit of more than $5,000 ever offered.

Commissioner Clay Christian praised the "extraordinary" effort to bring on the new and tested executive. And a former UM president said the money was a necessary investment to turn around enrollment declines.

Less than two years later, UM is back at square one.

The flagship is conducting interviews for its second enrollment vice president, this one charged with communications as well. And the campus is projecting another decline in student numbers come fall.

The first run with a top campus official dedicated to enrollment turned out to be rocky. For one thing, the administration cut $1 million for admissions when UM arguably needed it most. But the rough patch produced at least one lesson. And less turbulence may be on the horizon.

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Former UM Provost Beverly Edmond said basic infrastructure for enrollment was not in place at the university when Tom Crady stepped in as UM's first enrollment vice president in the summer of 2016.

"I don't think people quite understand how significant that was in terms of a challenge," said Edmond, hired earlier the same year as an interim second-in-command at UM.

At the time, UM was facing an enrollment slide of some 20 percent since 2010, and the decline had led to budget trouble and staffing shortages.

Kent McGowan, director of the Financial Aid Administration, said his office has lost close to five out of 17 FTE, or full time equivalents, since 2010, and it should have at least a couple more staff members by industry standard. An estimated 70 percent of the campus population gets some form of aid.

Last fall, McGowan said the enrollment vice president told him they had approval to add two staff members, but by the time the paperwork and justifications were completed, UM had offered buyouts, and the opportunity evaporated.

Money for enrollment has appeared subject to whim. Just as Crady came on board, he learned that $1 million had been cut for enrollment, leaving just $200,000 to recruit. The Commissioner's Office later provided the million, but to be split over two years.

A year ago, Crady outlined his frustration in an email to former UM President Sheila Stearns. He said the administration appeared "dysfunctional," the team had lost sight of the big picture, and enrollment needed to be a priority.

"When we started working together (in December 2016), virtually every promise made to me to improve our enrollment situation to that point had been broken," Crady said.

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UM also experienced leadership churn as its first enrollment vice president tried to stem losses.  UM lost an average 104 freshman a year since 2011.

In December 2016, Commissioner Christian asked the UM president to step down and tapped Stearns as interim. A national search was launched to find a permanent head of the university, and a search for provost was put on hold. At one point, the campus counted three interim executives in its top posts, including president and provost.

Last fall, instead of a drop, freshman enrollment ticked up. But the small bump didn't make up for a large graduating class, and overall enrollment dropped another 4.5 percent. 

That same fall, the commissioner named GE executive Seth Bodnar as UM's next president. The move would bring new energy and fresh ideas to the campus, and the transition meant different strategies. It also meant an already lean team would put energy into vetting ideas from the new administration even as it worked on recruitment.

In March, President Bodnar announced a restructure that combined enrollment and communications oversight after opting against renewing the contract of the first enrollment vice president. The move meant more leadership change. It also caused some members of the campus community to question the dedication of the Commissioner's Office to UM.

Outgoing Faculty Senate Chair Mary-Ann Bowman said the gearshift on enrollment came without a clear rationale or plan to move forward. And she wondered if the decision on the vice president's contract came from the Commissioner's Office since it took place in January, the same month the new president took the helm.

"What is their level of commitment to the University of Montana, and how can we understand it if we have been left in this situation with enrollment?" Bowman said of the Commissioner's Office.

Commissioner Christian has said the president is steering UM.

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This week, UM completes its interviews of finalists for the new enrollment vice president, and the next executive's path might be less tumultuous.

For starters, President Bodnar said UM will have money for recruitment. In an email, he said he's committed to replacing that million dollars and directed his finance vice president to restore the budget for enrollment efforts.

"I've asked that they are part of the base budget to provide sustainability and predictability for funding the necessary initiatives, staffing, materials, etc., moving forward," Bodnar said.

For the 2019 fiscal year, the total admissions budget will be $1.98 million, said Rosi Keller, finance vice president. UM will add in $200,000 in 2020, then another $400,000 in 2021, and then another $400,000 in 2021 until the base budget is up to $3 million, where Keller said it was a few years ago. Bodnar said the money will not be diverted.

"In addition, we are discussing efforts with leaders in the community who are interested in providing additional financial support to jump-start our recruiting efforts," Bodnar said. "As the new VP for enrollment and strategic communications joins the team, we will certainly look to this person's expertise and knowledge to refine our approach."

In a subtle benefit, former Provost Edmond said the new vice president also will gain from the infrastructure the former enrollment vice president built.

"I don't know that people are going to be wise enough or willing enough to step back and look at that," Edmond said.

Although the former vice president nudged up freshman enrollment and brought in revenue, the bonus he got wasn't tied to those measures. Going forward, Bodnar said the enrollment vice president will be evaluated based on performance, and the president is looking at a monetary reward, too.

"Historically, performance targets/bonuses have not been written into administrator contracts, but they are common in coaching contracts," Bodnar said. "We are looking at ways to include performance-based compensation as an additional incentive for meeting or exceeding certain targets."

Certainly, the new vice president also will gain from being selected by President Bodnar to be part of the team he is building. Soon after he started, Bodnar brought on a chief of staff, and he also hired a permanent provost, Jon Harbor, who will start this summer.

The finance vice president will be the only remaining executive serving in an interim capacity, and the leadership should be more stable than it has been. In addition to enrollment and communications abilities, Bodnar described the qualities he wants to see in the new executive.

"I'm looking for the person who sees the gem that our university is and wants to roll up their sleeves and get to work," Bodnar said. "They'll need to be creative, dedicated, resourceful, and ready to work with an incredible team!"

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Interest appears to remain strong in the vice president post despite earlier challenges, and UM's location and people are among the draws.

Outsiders can get starry-eyed for the Montana campus, at least during springtime interviews. Last week, Maureen Powers, one of four finalists for the vice president job, raved about the location as "gorgeous" and "marvelously beautiful."

Another candidate, Catherine Cole, said the people at UM are genuinely nice: "Everybody I have met today has wanted to be a part of the solution, and that is incredible."

UM interviews two more candidates this week, and whoever gets the job will likely be dealing with another enrollment drop this fall. President Bodnar said the graduating class is another large one, for one. Also, he said overall applications were "down significantly" in January, so he anticipates a smaller freshman class, even with redoubled efforts to bring in students.

Bodnar also has been dedicated to retention, or keeping students who enroll in the first place, and the campus is working to reduce the loss that takes place over summer. In the next four or five years, the president said enrollment will be key to UM's success as it increases revenue and reduces costs.

"The work we're doing today — marketing, outreach and our reorganization to align enrollment — will impact fall 2019 and have an even greater impact in '20 and '21," Bodnar said.

Edmond, who has spent 40 years in public administration and now serves in interim positions, advised the public against getting anxious or impatient in the wait for progress. She said efforts from both the former and incoming enrollment vice presidents won't come to fruition right away.

"It'll take a little time for those things to bear fruit, if you will," Edmond said. "And people need to be patient and allow that because it's not going to happen overnight."

Certainly, new work at UM will take time to mature, and surely, it isn't the first time the public has been advised to be patient.

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.