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University of Montana campus, Missoula

University of Montana campus

Unbeknownst to many in Missoula, a destructive tsunami was about to strike the University of Montana. 

The devastating wave unleashed from the office of the Commissioner of Higher Education and slated to be carried out by the administration in Main Hall could have destroyed the university as the state’s flagship institution. Numerous faculty positions and several outstanding academic programs at UM would have disappeared for good. Other programs would have been sufficiently weakened so as to lose their ability to offer potential students a legitimate university degree. Nationally recognized programs could have ceased to offer courses that have attracted multitudes of students to UM over the last several decades. The end result would have been the transformation of UM from a full-fledged institution of higher education to a technical-training school devoid of its core offerings in the humanities and social sciences.

For the past seven years, students, staff and faculty at UM have been asked to sacrifice their classes, programs and jobs so that the university administration can balance its budget. Yet, despite painful cuts to jobs and programs, three consecutive UM administrations have failed to address the sharp decline in student enrollment, the root cause of its budgetary woes. No one ever questioned why UM’s academic programs should be asked to pay for the failure of inept administrators. And why administrators, who have adopted a slash-and-burn strategy of cutting programs, continued to expand the size of UM’s bureaucracy, while at the same time refusing to identify a single high-paying administrative position for elimination. UM’s financial problems do not stem from the classes and programs the university offers, but rather from the mismanagement of its budget and top-heavy administrative structure, which has failed to display creativity and vision sufficient to reverse the decline in student enrollments and budgetary revenue.

UM, as does any university, exists for students to study, for faculty to research and teach, and for staff to operate daily. UM’s top administrators were recruited to perform one central task, namely, to ensure a healthy and reliable revenue-generating recruitment strategy. UM’s revenue base has shrunk because Main Hall has failed to recruit sufficient numbers of resident and non-resident students. The university’s enrollment numbers have fallen from over 16,000 to somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000. Why did the campus lose over 6,000 students? And what is being done to reverse this trend? Has the administration learned anything from its abysmal failure to recruit even a hundred international students out of a pool of over 1 million foreign students studying in the United States today? This staggering lapse cannot be blamed on any faculty member or student. This particular buck does indeed stop at the door of those who have been receiving salaries of $150,000 or more in return for what are turning out to be zero contributions to the progress and development of their campus.

What is to be done? After all, another threatening tsunami can easily and quickly form. First, the UM administration should stop slashing departmental budgets, a policy which would only destroy the university’s curriculum, discouraging potential students from choosing UM as their academic destination. Second, a serious and cohesive strategy must be designed to recruit both resident and non-resident students, in particular, non-resident students, who pay out-of-state tuition. Third, the UM administration must introduce significant cuts in its own personnel and budget. Fourth, and most importantly, should any future cuts be applied to academic programs, the administration must first look at the quality of teaching, research, creativity and service of each program, and not rely exclusively on flawed and arbitrary quantitative approaches.

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Joyce Brusin is a freelance writer and editor in Missoula whose previous employment at the University of Montana covered 18 years in a variety of positions. 

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