Furious George 

Getting to know UM’s high-energy, low-profile President George Dennison

It was very early in the tenure of University of Montana President George M. Dennison —early both in years and in time of day—when he had an encounter on campus that would be oddly symbolic of his leadership style. It was during the fall semester, 1990, and the new president had arrived for work before the sun was up, as he has done virtually every day for the last 10 years.

As Dennison approached his office, he noticed a large group of students erecting a shanty town of tents on the Oval in front of University Hall to protest the lack of quality student housing on campus. This was during an era when many of the university’s dorms were in severe disrepair and city zoning ordinances made it difficult for students to find housing near campus. It was not unusual to hear stories of students sleeping in distant trailer parks, on friends’ couches or even in their cars.

“I asked them if they’d take the tents down, and I would be willing to work to try to correct that situation,” Dennison recalls. “They didn’t much want to take them down, but I indicated that if they didn’t take them down, I would, so it’d be better if we worked together. So we did work together.”

Suffice it to say, George Dennison had his way. The tents came down and, true to his word, new housing went up. Recognizing that in a sluggish economy, state construction funds were limited, Dennison sought out partnerships in the private sector. When that wasn’t successful, he found the money elsewhere: $8 million for Robert Pantzer Residence Hall, $7.5 million for the K. Ross Toole Family Housing, $7 million for residence hall renovations, to name but a few of the housing improvements completed in his tenure.

That’s George Dennison, 16th president of the University of Montana, Missoula—variously described by those who have worked with him (or for him) as a relentless builder, a headstrong and ambitious leader, a savvy politician with a sharp business eye, and a tough negotiator who will listen to an opposing argument with an open mind, but more times than not will doggedly pursue his own vision of what higher education should be in the state of Montana.

A native of Kalispell, he entered administrative work when, as a professor of history at Colorado State University, he qualified for his first sabbatical but chose instead to accept the job of interim associate dean and never returned to teaching. More like a hyperactive CEO of a major corporation than a typical university president, he confesses that he eats only one meal a day (dinner), sleeps rarely, drinks lots of coffee and is up every morning at 4:30 a.m. to run five miles before going to work. His Indian name, given to him by Kyi-Yo Powwow Master of Ceremonies Earl Old Person, means “Fast Buffalo.”

Simply put, his is a buck-stops-here style of leadership that over the years has impressed some and alienated others, especially those who do not share his aggressive vision. Few can argue, however, that he has not been a tireless advocate for the university’s students, faculty and staff.

Still, as Jerry Lamb, vice president of the Associated Students of the University of Montana (ASUM) puts it, “You can go out and probably pick 20 students at random and ask them if they know what [President Dennison] looks like and undoubtedly I’d bet 19 of them would say no.”

So why does President Dennison, who has spent nearly a decade at the helm of Montana’s liberal arts institution—a tenure twice as long as what’s considered average for presidents at research-oriented public universities—still remain something of a mystery, not only to those on his own campus, but to many people in Missoula as well?

“I don’t try to claim a high profile on much of anything,” says Dennison. “But on the other hand, I’m certainly available and on campus.”

Says former Montana Congressman Pat Williams, now a senior fellow at the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West, just one of the university centers established during Dennison’s presidency, “George is easy to meet but difficult to know.”

Impressions of Presidency

There are, of course, those who do know George Dennison, if not so much personally then at least in his official capacity as the spokesman for nearly 12,000 UM students, 703 faculty and 1,180 staff, and as the man who presides over nearly $128 million in annual expenditures. Admittedly, finding people on campus who will speak candidly and on-the-record about him at times can be like asking the king’s subjects to speak frankly about their king. But despite some inevitable reservations, a few common impressions of Dennison emerge.

“I’ll remember him as a great man. He had a tremendous impact on my life,” says Barrett Kaiser, who served as ASUM student body president until his graduation in 1999. “You can really tick him off, but a couple of days later he’s back at the table with you.”

Kaiser should know. During his 1998-99 term, he and Dennison frequently locked horns, both in private and in public, so much so that in March 1999 Kaiser launched his “Students First” campaign, an aggressive (if largely symbolic) effort to get the administration to give more weight to students’ opinions on spending decisions that directly affect them. Yet despite their differences, Kaiser believes that it was his willingness to stand up for what he believed was best for his fellow students that earned him Dennison’s respect as a worthy adversary.

“I think George Dennison is a man of incredible vision, and at times that vision comes with scrutiny, but he holds fast and he does what he thinks is best for the University of Montana,” says Kaiser. “Working with the [Board of] Regents, sometimes he loses, sometimes he wins, but he always holds himself in a very respectful and positive manner and respects other people’s opinions.”

“We’ve definitely butted heads,” agrees current ASUM President Jessica Kobos. “But the nice part about President Dennison that I think a lot of students don’t see … is that he understands that I’m just looking out for the students and the bigger picture. And so we can disagree and we can argue, but in the end, I really think he does have the students’ best interest in mind.”

Considering how hectic the schedule of a university president is—“University presidents are like gypsies, always out traveling and begging,” says Williams—everyone I spoke to agreed that Dennison is an accessible president. He keeps office hours for students and faculty and meets regularly with those members of student government diligent enough to brave his 7 a.m. weekly breakfasts.

Still, Dennison strikes some students as a bit distant or aloof. One staffer at the Kaimin, UM’s daily student newspaper, went so far as to say that “I think I’d drop dead if I saw President Dennison walk in here.”

“I’ve e-mailed him a lot,” says Sue Malek, former president of the Montana Public Employees Association, the union that represents the university’s non-faculty employees. “And there have been plenty of times when I’ve e-mailed him angrily, but he always responds.

“He also comes to the departments regularly,” she adds. “I oftentimes think to myself, why does he do this to himself? It’s like going into the center of the Oval and being flogged once a week. But he works to keep communications open and hear people’s concerns.”

Then again, as Ray Ford, chairman of the UM Faculty Senate observes, “You have to distinguish between the ability to talk to somebody and the ability to make them change their mind.

“I suppose like any strong leader, [Dennison] occasionally comes across as fairly set in his ways. It’s either my way or the highway,” Ford says. “When you actually have to deal with him, there are times when you can argue with him and change his mind. But anyone who’s seen him, particularly when someone is challenging him from the audience, you don’t come away thinking that this is some kind of wimp.”

Painting by Numbers

“As much as record enrollments mean to us because of what they indicate about the continued attractiveness of the university and its programs, they also present directly to us the major issue that will preoccupy the people across the state this year,” Dennison once said. “Unless we receive improved support from the Legislature in the coming session, we will have to consider seriously the possibility of limiting or reducing enrollments. … The situation has reached crisis proportions, forcing us to decide, like it or not, between access to higher education and the quality of the education we provide.”

Those words, from Dennison’s first State of the University address on Sept. 17, 1990, just as easily could have been spoken last fall. While Dennison has presided over a decade of steadily rising record enrollments—from 10,055 students in the fall of 1990 to 11,945 students in the spring of 2000—he has also presided over 10 years of steadily declining state support and rising tuition.

Back in the early 1970s, a student’s tuition represented about 10-12 percent of the cost of education, a model Dennison describes as the “low-tuition, low financial aid” approach. Today, a student pays roughly half the cost of his or her education.

A report released in January by the Legislative Subcommittee on Postsecondary Education Policy and Budget, which compared Montana’s expenditures on higher education to those in seven other western states, found that Montana spends less per student that all the other states except North Dakota. And since enrollment and state funding formulas drive virtually all budgetary decisions on campus, from faculty and staff salaries to the number and diversity of degrees offered, Dennison’s administration has been forced to make some tough choices in recent years, which have strained his relationship with faculty and staff. Privately, there are those who say that Dennison came closer to a vote of no confidence by the Faculty Senate in the last two years than at any other time during his presidency.

Moreover, if you compare average faculty salaries based on student/faculty ratios, Montana pays the lowest salary and benefits package of any state in the region, paying its new assistant professors an average of $4,000 less than its peer institutions. Needless to say, such inequities make it difficult to attract and retain faculty.

“In the biological sciences, there were four or five offers in the past five years that were turned down,” says Kay Unger, president of the University Teachers Union. “You can cut budgets 10 years in a row, but there’s a limit. Student enrollments are rising, but [state] support per student is making everybody’s job difficult.”

“It’s quite clear that our [state] expenditures are too low, absolutely too low,” Dennison says. “It’s reached virtually a crisis. It’s no longer an issue of efficiency. I pride myself and this institution on being efficient. But there’s a limit. … I think there has to be a larger investment in higher education. And I think the state will pay the price if it doesn’t.”

Yet despite the fiscal woes that have fallen on his shoulders, Dennison plays the cards that are dealt him and doesn’t pass judgment on the policymakers in Helena.

“I’m not one to engage in what is one of the most popular parlor games in Montana, which is Legislature bashing. I just don’t do that,” he says. “I understand pretty well that those people who agree to serve in the Legislature have an onerous task before them. When they make decisions, those decisions are not based, as many people often assume, on their hostility. They’re based on the best judgment they can make given everything they know.”

Dennison’s own critics on campus are not always as sympathetic. When fall 1999 enrollment projections did not live up to expectations, there were those who said it was just the latest example of Dennison trying to do too much too fast, of his overextending university resources rather than focusing on the university’s core mission of academics.

“I really believe that we’re maxed out on the number of students we’re going to attract here,” says Lamb. “When your quality starts to suffer, when professors aren’t being paid enough, when staff are struggling and students are dealing with class cuts and a lowering quality of education, you’re going to have a backlash.”

“[Dennison’s] enthusiasm for higher education sometimes gets spread a little thin,” admits Unger. “It’s a virtue, but in some sense it may also be his vice. Sometimes his optimism gets him into trouble.”

But as Ford points out, it’s not the job of a university president to raise enrollment so much as it is to state what optimal enrollment should be. Statistically, Dennison has done better than what is considered reasonable scientific error for such predictions. The problem, he explains, is that even a one or two percent error can wreak havoc on a budget. Compounding the problem is the fact that while total student enrollments were up in the fall semester, the number of out-of-state students (who pay higher tuition) was not as high as expected.

“It’s easy to criticize people when the budget doesn’t balance,” says Ford. “But when you end up as the chair of the committee and somebody shows you all the sources of revenue and all the expenses and they say, ‘Tell us how to raise more money or tell us how to cut budgets,’ then all of a sudden it’s not so easy anymore.”

Despite the periodic shortfalls that have plagued Dennison’s presidency, Unger and Ford, both faculty representatives who have been on campus for Dennison’s entire tenure, say he remains a strong advocate for faculty causes.

“We had a period of presidents where their average term was about three years. They were building a career and moving on,” recalls Unger. “That is not Dennison. I think Dennison is here and committed to this institution and I have great respect for him.”

The Edifice Complex

While some of Dennison’s critics have charged that his overly optimistic enrollment predictions have been driven by all the bonding that was necessary to pay for construction on campus, it would be difficult to deny that the Missoula campus was in dire need of renovation when he took office in 1990.

“It seems to me that many of Montana’s elected leaders understand that the University of Montana, particularly its buildings and infrastructure, were a mess before George took the presidency,” says Williams. “Through non-stop determination he’s just turned that around.”

Williams tells the story of how, during one of his last terms in Congress, Dennison was pushing to get federal money to complete the new pharmacy building, and was in weekly contact with Williams during one of the critical funding periods.

“Toward the end of the process I said, ‘Well, George, I just wanted you to know that I’m doing what I can.’” Williams recalls. “And he said to me, ‘Well, so far that’s not good enough. Push harder on the accelerator.’”

Ask anyone who has spent more than a couple of years on campus what Dennison’s legacy will be, at some point they will mention the building boom of the 1990s. In the last 10 years, he has presided over nearly $150 million in capital construction projects—the Continuing Education Building, the Adams Center, UC renovations, the Davidson Honors College, the Pharmacy Building, the parking garage, to name but a few—most of which have been paid for through revenue bonds or private donations. (It’s worth noting that during that same period, grants to the university also increased from $7.6 million in 1990 to $31.4 million in 1999.)

And while temporary chain link fences and the ubiquitous construction cranes may have been emblematic of UM in the 1990s, Dennison politely but firmly denies that he suffers from what has been called his “edifice complex.”

“If somebody had said that you’re going to be remembered as a builder, I would have told them that that was the farthest thing from my mind in 1990 or 1991,” Dennison says. “These facilities are designed for students and faculty, not for me. Goodness, what do I get out if it? But I think it helps because the students come.”

Clearly, Dennison believes that if UM is going to sustain the quality of its education and play a major role in the ongoing transformation of the Montana economy, its future lies in expanding its research capabilities. And to do that, he argues, you must have modern facilities. When Dennison arrived in 1990, UM research volume totaled less than $7 million a year. This year, it is predicted to reach $40 million.

But others argue that in the process of building the facilities, core academics have gotten lost in the shuffle.

“I think [Dennison’s vision] is pushing new buildings, and believing that if we build, build, build and just make things bigger, then that will make things better,” says Lamb. “I think we need to step back a little bit and refocus on why we exist in the first place, and that is education. Students will follow because of that, not because of the buildings.”

Lamb points to the 1999 ranking of UM in U.S. News and World Report, which placed the University in a disappointing fourth tier, behind Montana State.

While Dennison does not dismiss the importance of such rankings, he cautions against reading too much into them. Noting that the 1999 methodology of ranking schools was changed to give more weight to dollars spent per student, it favors schools with high dollar-intensive programs like engineering. As a result, Cal Tech leapt ahead of such academic powerhouses as Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford.

“I think that students who come to this place can find the best education in the world,” says Dennison. “The evidence for that is the 28 Rhodes Scholars that we have. Obviously, those students found it here. I think I found it here. I think you can still find it here. But I think too often we don’t pay attention to the large number of people who are here who don’t really know how to find their way through the maze and find the sources of inspiration they need.”

Finding their way through the academic maze remains a particular challenge for many of the university’s foreign and minority students who make up only a small fraction of the entire student population. Statewide, the dropout rate among Native American students, the state’s largest minority, continues to climb, reducing the potential pool of Indian student applicants.

Still, Dennison is credited with being a strong advocate for more diversity on campus, helping to push Native American enrollment up from 168 students in the fall of 1992 to 371 in the fall of 1999.

“When [Dennison] first came, there were almost no Native American graduate students, and now there are around 40,” says Larry LaCounte, director of the McNair Scholars Program, a federally funded program devoted to recruiting and retaining minority, low-income and first-generation college students. “Largely that’s the result of his having people solicit funds for financial support for Native American graduate students.”

Selecting a Legacy

For all his hard work, Dennison remains in many minds an enigmatic character. Although a member of the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I Board of Directors, he was out of town for last week’s basketball tournament in Missoula and Big Sky Championship victory by the Lady Griz. His son Rick is the special teams coach for the Denver Broncos, and yet, despite a recent Super Bowl victory, a visit to Dennison’s office reveals no Broncos paraphernalia.

A historian by training, Dennison can sound almost modest about what his legacy will be when he eventually moves on from the University of Montana.

“In 30 years, when folks look back and historians write about it, I probably will be remembered for a couple of things,” he says. “One is, I hope, for providing leadership in thinking through what the policies of higher education should be… and another for bringing something to the state that it really needed, and that is an involvement in community service.”

His friend Pat Williams is a bit more generous.

“George Dennison will be remembered as one of the most effective University of Montana presidents in the life of the school.”

As for what the future holds for George Dennison, one need look no further than his first address, which reflects a long-term vision that he says has changed little in the last 10 years:

“Only rarely in our lives does anyone of us have the opportunity to come home again. Some regard the mere suggestion of doing so as hopelessly romantic. However, I bare witness to the wonderful reality of it. … The decision to accept the offer of president was the best one I ever made. I can think of no place I’d rather be, and no position I’d rather have.”

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