Blame hall 

UM's plan to cut programs, teachers doesn't solve problem

Last week, the University of Montana announced plans to cut more than 200 full-time positions, citing a 6.5 percent drop in enrollment from last year. In an October press release, UM had first reported a "preliminary" drop of 3.8 percent. Once it had determined the actual drop was nearly twice that, it quietly updated its website.

There was no second press release, however. Instead, President Royce Engstrom announced at a Nov. 17 campus forum that cuts at the UM campus would focus on the departments of "Journalism, Anthropology, English, Geography, Liberal Studies, Art, Political Science, and Forestry Management."

The university will eliminate 53 teaching positions that are currently not filled, fire 39 people now teaching and cut another 53 graduate assistants and adjuncts. Another 51 jobs will disappear in "consolidation/elimination" of academic and support programs. Meanwhile, only five administrative positions will be cut.

That's an odd approach, since to a dispassionate observer the problem looks kind of administrative. It's not an anthropology teacher's job to make sure the school enrolls enough students to pay its bills. UM did not just announce surprise midyear budget cuts because composition TAs failed to predict the drop in incoming freshmen. The 97.5 percent/2.5 percent distribution of these layoffs between teachers and administrators seems to reflect the 0 percent/100 percent distribution of people deciding who gets fired.

In last week's forum, Engstrom said he "wouldn't dwell" on the causes behind the enrollment drop, a statement that boggles the mind. The president of the University of Montana should most certainly dwell on why enrollment headcount has fallen by about 2,600 students since it peaked in 2011, the year after he took office.

Engstrom has cited a decline in the number of Montana high school graduates who go on to attend college, which would make sense, except that Montana State's enrollment has increased by 1,500 students in the same period. He has suggested students prefer MSU because they are pursuing majors UM doesn't offer, which casts doubt on the wisdom of directing these cuts toward academics.

If UM is going to teach fewer liberal arts classes, what does it plan to offer students that MSU does not? These cuts seem to imagine a future in which MSU is for engineering and UM is for football.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

That assessment would be unfair if the university had not leveraged its moral reputation to protect its football program on Engstrom's watch. As an October editorial in the Kaimin pointed out, enrollment began to drop in fall 2012, after Grizzly football player Beau Donaldson was found guilty of sexual assault. Shortly thereafter, the Department of Justice began investigating the university's approach to sexual assault, and Missoula was unfairly branded "America's rape capital." Later in 2012, Jordan Johnson was acquitted of rape in a trial that brought national attention to the way university administrators seemed to have offered special treatment to the UM quarterback.

In fall 2013, enrollment fell below MSU's for the first time in decades. The DOJ announced that UM had mishandled sexual assaults in January 2014, and enrollment fell again in the fall. This spring, Jon Krakauer published Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town and enrollment fell again.

That's not a problem with teaching in the liberal arts. That's a problem with how the school is administered and with how it represents itself to the public. Engstrom did not cause this scandal or the four years of declining enrollment that accompanied it, but he presided over them. And he is responsible for digging the university out.

It is dishonest for him to present the drop in enrollment as unforeseen. Back in 2013, the Enrollment Management Working Group complained publicly that UM had no comprehensive plan for increasing enrollment. The university had articulated no specific goals, nor had it made enrollment management a part of its overall strategy. Two years later, there is still no strategic enrollment plan at the University of Montana.

"We had a lot of recommendations out of those working groups, so we are moving rapidly, as time and resources allow, to implement the good ideas that came out of those working groups," Engstrom told the Missoulian. "And so I will just say that all that is in some stage of progress."

If this is progress, what does regress look like? The University of Montana went from record enrollment to budget cuts in four years. It's losing students to MSU and its strategy is to offer fewer classes. After four years of scandal and declining enrollment, its administration has no plan but to fire teachers.

Maybe that's not Engstrom's fault. But if UM is competently managed now, what would bad management look like?

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and the continuing devaluation of his graduate degree at combatblog.net.

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