The University of Montana faces well-known challenges. Fall semester headcount enrollment has fallen nine years in a row since peaking at 15,669 in Fall 2011. COVID-19 has complicated President Bodner's plans for a renaissance.
I do not doubt that these are trying times and that painful programmatic and personnel cuts must be made at UM. This is reality in 2020.
These difficult circumstances have caused some connected to the university to warn that accreditations of highly respected programs such as law, pharmacy, accounting, physical therapy, music, theater, clinical psychology, forestry, education and speech pathology are in jeopardy because of budget cuts. However, let me provide some perspective.
When I arrived in 1986 as the 17th president of the university, headcount enrollment was 8,840. It fell to 8,472 the next year and we were forced to go through formal retrenchment proceedings that led to UM wiping out several valued academic programs and making unavoidable financial cuts. Board of Regents Chair Dennis Lind and I were forced to explain this process to a mostly unsympathetic legislature.
Did this signal the demise of UM? Far from it. The university continued to add to already impressive numbers of Rhodes and Truman scholars. None of its programs lost accreditation. New emphasis was placed on student recruitment and this included faculty/staff/student bus tours to even the remotest parts of the state.
UM bragged about itself then and the bragging was legitimate. The university was selected as a "Public Ivy" in an influential national study. Research grants and gifts to the university climbed. Don Read launched UM on a 16-year football winning streak against the Bobcats. A new President's Lecture Series brought interesting and challenging individuals to Missoula and attracted widespread public support.
The salient point is that these things occurred when UM's enrollment was at least 10% smaller than it is today. UM was a superb institution capable of doing great things back then and it remains this today. Name another American university that generates more than $100 million in externally funded research without having either a medical school or engineering.
When Oscar Craig, the first president of the University of Montana, predicted that "The university — it shall prosper," he was right. UM's history demonstrates that it can prosper and generate excellence even when it is a smaller institution. Yes, there is undeniable pain attached to growing smaller. But the history of UM demonstrates that its quality and performance ultimately are not determined by ups and downs in student enrollment. How else could funded research at UM have expanded by more than 50% during this past decade when enrollment was declining?
The gloomy pessimists who predict academic calamity at UM should review the institution's history. We (and I employ this pronoun because UM is an impressive community and state asset belonging to all of us) were good when we were 8,500 students and we certainly can be at least as good at 9,000 or 10,000 students. UM will continue to be an institution that consistently overachieves and sometimes even surprises itself with the quality of its exploits.
James V. Koch was president of the University of Montana (1986-1990) and Old Dominion University (1990-2001). He continues to teach courses at both institutions and the Johns Hopkins University Press recently published his book, "Runaway College Costs." He lives in Missoula.
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