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"Tree-hugger school."

That's what a Missoula gas station attendant called the University of Montana when a Mind Over Media team member casually asked whether he knew anything about the university.

"I was not expecting that," said Cecil Foster, a partner at the Pittsburgh-based consulting firm hired by UM to help rebrand the university. "As a researcher, I want to know why they call it a tree-hugger school. That's probably not what President (Royce) Engstrom wants his brand to be."

Mind Over Media is on the Missoula campus this week, holding dozens of meetings with students, administrators, faculty and staff to learn about UM's strengths and weaknesses.

The goal is to eventually "brand" UM, Foster said. This campus visit is the first step in a nine-month, $160,000 effort.

To build a brand, the company needs to fully understand UM's strengths, weaknesses and perceived stereotypes.

"Everyone has their own perspectives on what sets UM apart, so the more people who participate the better," said Beth Hammock, co-chair of UM's Brand Strategy Task Force.

Some of the biggest marketing challenges the university faces are a lack of financial resources, lack of a unified vision, and misinformation and conjecture.

"People have an outdated and narrow view of the university," said Jim Burchfield, dean of the College of Forestry and Conservation.

Another part of the equation is who UM competes with for faculty and students; UM administrators pointed to Boise State, Oregon State, Gonzaga and Montana State University as principal competitors.

A Montana student's decision on where to go to school may well depend on where they live in the state, said Provost Perry Brown. Another factor is the student's interest in a field of study.

MSU is largely thought of as strong in the sciences and engineering. UM's strengths include its liberal arts education, such as performing arts and creative writing. Missoula is known throughout the state as a cultural center, said Stephen Kalm, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts, and that embodies diversity.

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Sometimes, though, UM's strength is also its weakness.

UM's science programs don't always get the respect they deserve. The College of Forestry, for example, has renowned science programs but is not located at the state's land-grant university because the trees are in western Montana, Brown said.

"I'm the tree-hugger in chief," Burchfield said.

Missoula has struggled in the past to relate to other parts of the state, particularly in terms of convincing lawmakers from across the state of the importance of funding UM programs, said Reed Humphrey, chairman of the physical therapy department.

UM is still defined in some ways by the political rhetoric expressed in the 1960s. That, in addition to its liberal arts curriculum, has earned UM names over the years such as "The People's Republic" and the "Dancing Academy." It shows how slowly perceptions change, said Chris Comer, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

"Your campaign is going to have to be awesome," he said.

Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at chelsi.moy@missoulian.com.

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