By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT
Tucked away in a downtown Missoula eatery, city and county leaders joined the University of Montana’s top administrators to discuss a range of issues, from research and development to branding and equal opportunity.
The two-hour session also dove into enrollment and recruitment, with city and county leaders fearful that UM’s recent struggles could hold economic implications for the wider community.
“I used to think Missoula was fairly recession proof because of the university, but I no longer think that,” said Missoula County Commissioner Stacy Rye. “We’re all in this together, and we know that. Whatever it is we can do to help, please let us know.”
Over the past few years, enrollment at UM has fallen off, partially due to program offerings, changing demographics and increased competition in recruiting students. As a result, UM President Royce Engstrom recently announced a workforce reduction of roughly 192 full-time positions.
The reduction involves 27 full-time employees who will not return to campus next year. The rest of the cuts, Engstrom said, will result from open lines or the non-retention of some adjunct faculty positions.
“We find ourselves in an enrollment that will only support a certain number of employees,” Engstrom said. “We can’t operate in a fiscally irresponsible manner. It has an impact on Missoula’s economy, there’s no question about that.”
Engstrom said the school’s budget is directly tied to enrollment. “When enrollment grows, our budget grows,” he told city and county leaders. “When enrollment doesn’t grow, our budget doesn’t grow.”
While UM officials are tentatively optimistic about the next freshmen class, several city leaders criticized the university for what they see as shortcomings in past recruiting practices. Several have children who are now applying for college, and they believe other universities are outpacing UM.
“The kids who applied to Montana State University and UM have had far different experiences,” said Ward 3 council member Gwen Jones. “When they apply to MSU, within a couple of days they’re getting phone calls, they’re getting glossy brochures with course catalogs. They’re being sold on their wonderful campus.”
In contrast, Jones said, those same students have not received the same treatment from UM. The disparity in recruiting efforts between the two flagship universities – not to mention out-of-state schools – has placed UM at a disadvantage, they believe.
“I think it’s fixable,” Jones added. “People need to feel wanted, that’s the bottom line. If they feel wanted, they’ll come to UM. The game needs to be upped.”
Engstrom said the university is aware of the issue, and it has placed its full attention on resolving the matter. He said the school has instituted new efforts to interact with prospective students sooner in the process. It also has increased its outreach efforts, though even that is limited to budgeting.
“We know we have been substandard in our recruiting efforts, and we’re working as hard as we possibly can to address that,” Engstrom said. “It’s looking like this recruiting cycle, at least at this point in time, is going much better.”
City and county leaders say UM is not alone in the challenge, and they’re looking to help where they can. County commissioners hope to have closer dialogue with UM officials, and members of the City Council want to help promote Missoula as part of the recruiting package.
“If I were coming to Missoula from out of state, or outside Missoula, and was not only embraced by the university but felt like the community was embracing me as a student, that would be a really good selling point,” Jones said.
Jones said downtown Missoula has much to offer its college students, which should play as a recruiting tool. When prospective students tour campus, she said, the city could provide walking maps dotted with local attractions.
At this point, city and county leaders are simply in the brainstorming process, but they believe local government – joined by the Downtown Business Improvement District – have something to offer.
“There should be some kind of a partnership,” Jones said. “The more they connect with this place, the more they’ll want to come here.”
While UM struggles on the enrollment front, it continues to bolster the local economy through its growing research arm, along with its athletic programs.
Scott Whittenburg, vice president of research and creative scholarship, said UM will likely set a new record this year in landing research awards, surpassing $83 million. A 2014 study conducted by UM’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research also found that UM research created 881 jobs, and that $134 million in expenditures were made through local businesses.
The school also provided roughly $30 million in venture capital to help UM spin-offs grow, Whittenburg said.
“We have a large economic impact already, and that’s going to be even larger,” Whittenburg said. “MonTech is 100 percent full, and we’re looking to expand that, and we’ll probably split that out into a bio-tech piece.”
The Athletic Department has also commissioned an economic impact study. It’s widely known that 26,000 football fans serve as a weekend boon to the local economy, but school officials believe it goes further that kickoff Saturdays.
“We understand the role we play in economic growth, and economic generation,” UM Athletic Director Kent Halsam said. “We know that having a vibrant athletic program, one that’s a marketing tool for the university, is important. We take that seriously.”
Rep. Andrea Olsen, D-Missoula, said the state Legislature also has a responsibility to fund education. She said the percent the state now pays for education has diminished in recent decades. The way funding is allocated to the state’s universities has also changed.
Both, she said, impact the bottom line. She too believes the larger Missoula community must play a part in correcting the challenges facing UM. Getting money out of the Legislature may be hard, she said, but it’s not impossible.
“While it will be hard to get the state to increase the amount of funding it puts into education, I think we as a community need to start talking about the problem that way,” Olsen said. “I would like us to start working together to increase the money that comes for education.”