University of Montana campus, Missoula

University of Montana campus

Decades after I left the University of Montana's Liberal Arts Building, I returned last week to empty hallways and deserted classrooms in a building formerly one of the liveliest and crowded spots on our beautiful campus.

What has happened to the once boisterous and exciting place I called my home? The painful fact is that no public flagship university in the United States has been gutted more in the last eight years than the University of Montana.

Since the autumn of 2011, UM has been losing a significantly large number of its students. It is estimated that between 2011 and 2019, the university lost 40% of its undergraduates. On each occasion, as the real numbers indicating sharp declines in enrollment were released, the UM administration tried to spin the bad news by claiming that though the numbers were devastating, there were hidden signs of hope and optimism. 

The terrible reality is that one of the main reasons for the decline in enrollment at UM is the systematic attack waged by the UM administration on the university's curriculum. The university's curriculum, which is the most attractive and marketable component of any successful recruitment strategy, has been dismembered by systematic cuts in the number of faculty members, especially in the College of Humanities and Sciences (CHS), historically the driving engine of the university's academic prosperity and growth. Outstanding academic programs with national and international reputations, such as Creative Writing and History, have been literally disfigured by systematic cuts to many of them in the form of attrition or a destructive policy of not filling vacant positions with new hires.

While shortsighted administrators cheer and celebrate the departure of faculty members because these departures provide them with salary savings, in reality these losses have resulted in impoverishment of a curriculum which at one time attracted thousands of new students to UM and Missoula.

While the programs in the Humanities and Social Sciences have come under attack, the administration has emphasized technical skills and technological training, missing the fundamental fact that many major companies in the United States are run by executives who completed their degrees in various fields of the humanities and social sciences. These same executives are in turn looking for leaders who have been trained in critical and creative thinking, and have received a globally oriented education.

While the academic train at UM has gone off the rails, a few hours down the road at Montana State University-Bozeman, programs in humanities have been expanding and thriving because that university administration, unlike the one at UM, understands and appreciates the intrinsic attractiveness and the fundamental relevance of a liberal arts based curriculum. Instead of emphasizing an exclusively technical and skill-based education, which would be a losing strategy resulting in the complete destruction of the core values and the historical mission of their university, MSU, the traditionally engineering-agricultural school, is now emphasizing an integrated approach with heavy concentration on English, history and foreign languages and cultures, along with various fields of social sciences such as sociology and anthropology.

I urge all of you, the good readers of the Missoulian, to voice your support for the defense and expansion of the humanities and social sciences courses and programs at UM. I also urge you to voice your strong opposition to corrosive policies, which will eventually reduce our beloved UM to a two-year technical college. The lack of a strategic vision and the failure to fervently defend the core values for which this community has stood will undermine the credibility of a university that yet possesses great potential for a bright future.

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Lewis Schneller of Missoula is a University of Montana alumnus and a longtime community and political activist. 

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