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University Hall at the University of Montana

The University of Montana campus

The Montana Kaimin, the University of Montana’s campus newspaper, recently put together a video that vividly demonstrates the difference between UM’s approach to student recruitment and that of Montana State University. The video notes that MSU budgets about $2.2 million for student recruitment compared to UM’s $1.4 million, and then shows how this affects student outreach.

The Kaimin did this by requesting prospective student information from both schools. MSU responded promptly and followed up repeatedly, eventually sending a total of 12 emails and eight pieces of mail, complete with an invitation to apply. UM sent no emails, and only one piece of rather unimpressive mail.

The Kaimin published its video in mid-March, which, coincidentally, was about the same time UM announced that it plans to restructure its enrollment duties and will not renew its contract with Vice President for Enrollment and Student Affairs Tom Crady. UM President Seth Bodnar announced that in the future, enrollment and communications will be combined under one vice president, who will hopefully be hired sometime this fall.

Thus UM continues to spin its wheels on its most critical problem. Declining enrollment is the driving force behind budget cuts, faculty reductions and program reprioritization. While it’s certainly smart to take a hard look at the university’s various departments and make sure they are meeting the academic needs of today’s students, it’s all for nothing if UM cannot figure out how to attract and retain more of these students in the first place.

The university has struggled to get a handle on the enrollment problem for far too long. Overall enrollment at UM has fallen by 28.5 percent since 2010. Meanwhile, enrollment at MSU has risen by 23.4 percent. Now, UM is facing the prospect of starting yet another academic year without a clear enrollment strategy. Crady’s contract will end on June 30.

When he was selected in 2016 to fill the newly created post of vice president for enrollment and student affairs, Crady was offered an unprecedented $70,000 recruitment bonus in recognition of the significant challenge he was tasked with overcoming. But at about that same time, UM cut $1 million from its enrollment budget. Essentially, the university spent a lot of money on a new head of enrollment and then gave that person reduced resources with which to tackle its most pressing problem.

Nevertheless, the number of incoming freshmen did steady under Crady’s watch, even though total student numbers fell after an even larger number of students graduated.

Meanwhile, the university learned that $1 million would be restored for enrollment over a period of a couple of years. Then, earlier this year, Vice President of Finance Rosi Keller reported that the full $1 million would be added back into the enrollment budget.

The budget fluctuations, reorganizations, hirings and firings demonstrate that UM still does not have a clear direction on enrollment. It has undoubtedly missed out on opportunities to boost enrollment as it circled aimlessly.

What exactly is the university’s enrollment strategy?

Not a moment too soon, the university has been handed a significant new opportunity that may answer this critical question. Jim Messina, a UM alum who served as Barack Obama’s campaign chief of staff and then as President Obama’s deputy chief of staff, is volunteering the services of his company, The Messina Group, to help the university lick its enrollment problem at last.

Messina first approached the university about three years ago but no one followed up on his offer to help. The only reason UM now has a second chance is because of Chelsea Elander, who once worked with Messina and maintained ties with him over the years. This time, when Messina offered to help, Elander acted as a liaison and made sure the university did not forgo this valuable opportunity again.

The university has not yet shared any student information with Elander or The Messina Group. As it pursues this new prospect, the university needs to make sure it is on firm legal and policy ground. Before things go any further, it must define both Elander’s and The Messina Group’s roles, and communicate them to the larger community. Because Elander is married to the university president and is apparently acting with some authority from Bodnar’s administration, the President’s Office ought to release a public statement explaining what her role will be with regard to enrollment.

Currently, UM is working on a draft contract with The Messina Group that should similarly describe the specific terms of the company’s work. UM should have binding agreements in place regarding the use of any student information, and in the interest of transparency, the agreements should be made public. The university must take special care that every legal detail is accounted for and every policy is strictly followed.

The entire university spent months undergoing an intensive reprioritization process to ensure any program changes were made in as targeted a way as possible. Last week, Bodnar presented a proposal to reorganize some departments and cut about 50 faculty over the next three years.

The proposed cuts follow two rounds of voluntary buyouts as well as repeated attempts to notify some lecturers that their employment was being terminated; those notifications were rolled back twice after the University Faculty Association alleged that they were made in violation of university policy, but ultimately about a dozen of them stuck.

Hopefully, UM has learned the importance of dotting every legal “I” and crossing every policy “T.” It cannot afford to continue to bumble around on enrollment.

The university community and its supporters stand ready to support its student recruitment and retention strategy — once we know what that is.

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