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Amid declining enrollment and budget cuts, the University of Montana struggles to determine its long-term identity

Many of the University of Montana students who rallied around the Oval on a frozen December day just before finals had scribbled messages for Main Hall on cardboard signs. Others just dusted off the same old placards from last time.

"There were some professors who said, 'We have old signs that have the exact same stuff on them, that say, 'Cut administrative pork,'" says Molly Jones, a third-year English major.

The students' protest of the latest, deepest round of campus budget cuts stemming from UM's ongoing enrollment drop had many familiar rings. Looming faculty reductions were decried as an attack on the liberal arts. Demonstrators sought to "Stop Main Hall" and implored President Royce Engstrom to "make the right choice." The faculty peppered among the crowd were the same ones who had assembled the first protests here in 2013. So, while the commotion had Main Hall administrators looking up from their desks, they weren't exactly rattled. Provost Perry Brown, seen through an open window, even allowed himself to dance a quick jig to the chants of students outside.

But something was different this time, and not just because the number of demonstrators approached 200, or because their voices were louder, or because they were led by students instead of faculty. It's that two years after the first march, UM doesn't have much pork left to cut. Another drop in enrollment last fall, one of the most severe yet, has left campus short $6 million beyond the $3.2 million budget-makers already set aside to soften the blow. Next year, officials say the gap will increase to at least $12 million.

Amid declines that have strained the university's finances since 2012, the latest figures mark a breaking point. Despite bumps in state support, UM's budget is now contracting, and the university is preparing to downsize. On Jan. 22 Engstrom finalized cuts to 192 full-time positions—"a recognition that at least for the time being, for the foreseeable future, our enrollment is what it is," he told campus when proposing the reductions in November, " ... and we've got to come to grips with that, I guess."

Main campus has 2,200 fewer students than five years ago, a 17 percent plunge from what were previously record highs. Engstrom acknowledges the roller-coaster trend as "unprecedented" in UM's memory. But it's also exceptional on a national scale. Federal and institutional data analyzed by the Indy shows the University of Montana has lost a larger portion of its undergraduates since the Great Recession than any other flagship university. Only a handful have lost students at all. And among 173 public research institutions, UM's enrollment drop since 2007 is the sixth worst.

Increasingly, faculty are telling Engstrom their campus is in crisis. They fear it will suffer as years of belt-tightening give way to permanent retrenchment. "This reduction in faculty and staff in our department will lead to a death spiral," members of the English department wrote to the president in November, after learning it would be targeted.

University leaders prefer a more neutral assessment, even as they say the situation requires urgent steps. "I don't view it as a crisis," Engstrom says. "I view it as dealing with reality in a responsible way."

The reality check isn't just financial. Administrators in Main Hall and in Helena see falling enrollment as a sign that UM's academic offerings must adapt to college students who are looking for clearer pathways into the workforce. Engstrom believes the university can do so without selling its soul as the state's premier institution for the liberal arts and sciences. Others are more skeptical. Just four years ago, UM's then-$156 million general budget was larger than its Bozeman rival's. Today, Montana State University wields nearly $50 million more than UM.

Where does UM turn next? It's a question that deals as much with budgets and recruitment plans as it does with the very identity of the campus' core mission.

"The battle between the universities is over," said molecular genetics professor and administration critic Doug Coffin after the December rally. "We're no longer the flagship. We need to find where our place is."

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"Kind of unprecedented"

Enrollment at the University of Montana is right where Commissioner of Higher Education Clay Christian thought it would be. Before he was hired to oversee the system in 2012, Christian chaired the state's board of regents, where he says members spent years looking at charts that showed how Montana's pool of high school graduates would begin to shrink over the next decade.

"UM's enrollment numbers aren't substantially less than where we thought they'd be, if you just rely on the Montana student population," he says. "I don't believe it's tremendously off course."

Yet, the total loss of students at UM puts it in company with some of the most troubled universities in the country, federal data shows. From 2007 to 2014, the most recent year available, the school was among 14 of 173 public research institutions whose four-year undergraduate population declined by at least 5 percent from prerecession levels. A few other flagships, including the University of Kansas and the University of Florida, were in that category, and "peer" schools like the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and New Mexico State University had small declines as well.

When fall 2015 data collected from individual institutions is included, UM plunges deeper. The only schools with larger drops than UM's 15 percent decline since 2007 include a pair of regional universities in Illinois, the state most devastated by enrollment drops since the recession (20 percent and 21 percent); Wayne State University in Detroit (16 percent); the University of New Orleans, which has continued to struggle after losing more than half its student body after Hurricane Katrina (24 percent); and South Carolina State University, a historically black university with accreditation troubles (39 percent).

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