The University of Montana took a beating last week. On Aug. 29, locals gathered for the third of three independently hosted public forums on the future of Missoula College, venting for two straight hours about past and present frustrations with the university's administration. The panel seat reserved for UM remained empty, the President's Office having declined to participate further after sending a representative to the first forum in June.
Professor Linda Frey kicked off the event with concerns that the administration is attempting to "squish together" UM and Missoula College. That course would dilute the core missions of both, Frey said, and would be like trying to "blend chili and crème brule." Rep. Doug Coffin, a UM professor and state Senate candidate for 2014, questioned how something as simple as a building project had become such a point of contention.
Lewie Schneller with the Advocates for Missoula's Future piled on, likening the past few years at UM to "a mystery novel" and adding that the campus is smelling more like "a fish factory." Schneller hypothesized that UM's behavior regarding the Missoula College debate is perhaps indicative of a broader shift in administrative mentality. It started with "the gutting of the athletic department," he said, referring to the 2012 firings of Athletic Director Jim O'Day and head football coach Robin Pflugrad. "Nobody knew that was coming down until [President Royce] Engstrom jerked his knee."
At times the complaints seemed to originate from some long-lost cache of anger. When the panel turned to suspicions that UM is attempting to shift its entire liberal arts program to Missoula College in order to cut costs, ASUM President Asa Hohman rolled his eyes. Hohman stood, as he had in previous forums, as the lone counterbalance in the debate, politely rebuking the zanier allegations while maintaining distance from the administration itself.
By the end of the first hour, the forum felt more like a family gathering with UM cast as the absentee black sheep, unwilling or unable to counter the scathing denunciations about its behavior. Panelists repeatedly pointed to the empty chair as a sign of how much UM truly values the public's input. "Skipping a public forum is not a gesture of good will," Coffin said.
Perhaps when UM begins hosting forums on its own time and turf this fall—as the administration has intended to for months—the community will have blown off this steam. Then the discussion might proceed, as Hohman suggested, with "an open mind."