Stearns: Montana spirit can carry UM to a brighter future
“The University of Montana, it shall prosper,” said its first president, Oscar Craig, in 1908. We have prospered for 124 years. It will be true for decades to come.
All universities and most organizations go through turmoil in their histories. Cycles of prosperity are not a question of if, but when and why. Our responsibility is to change and innovate over time, all the while continuing to offer an excellent education for our students.
Some of you may recall the precipitous drop in UM’s enrollment in the late ’70s, in contrast with Montana State University’s surge at that time. Cycles go up and down. Paul Polzin analyzed that uncertain time for UM in the Montana Business Quarterly in 1978.
As president of UM from 1986 to 1990, James Koch helped grow enrollment and confidence in the University statewide. Even though enrollment grew, funding did not catch up for a few years. Thus in 1989, UM endured the pain of retrenchment and program loss. Yet the recovery continued. Prosperity, relatively speaking, returned in the ’90s.
Once again, it is a period in our history to address an enrollment downturn, to adjust and to serve students with our customary confident Montana spirit. My UM colleagues are doing so with energy and excellence.
The clouds on our horizon still have rain in them. We are setting priorities to reduce expenditures while holding fast to our core mission, academic quality and student needs.
UM has contracts with nearly 3,000 employees. While we occasionally differ among ourselves on the interpretations of various contracts, we strive to provide a reasonable notice to all employees whose situation might be changing.
Fact: We will continue this year to reduce the number of employees to serve the number of students enrolled. We must also absorb UM’s share of the statewide budget shortfall. Nearly 90 percent of our expenditures are in the area of personnel – mainly salaries, wages and health insurance. Years of reducing operating expenses to avoid personnel reductions have pushed that percentage ever higher. Below 80 percent is a far better benchmark for us. If we overspend on personnel, we potentially underspend in areas such technology, operating budgets or deferred maintenance. Hence: prioritization.
Throughout my career, I have followed the principles of shared governance in university decisions. Last April, I appointed a broad-based prioritization committee (APASP) to review academic programs and administrative services. Dozens – perhaps hundreds – of faculty, staff and students are participating. Their findings will inform difficult campus choices.
I ask all members and friends of the UM family to work together in the daunting task ahead of us. We will teach and serve students in meeting their educational and career goals. We will do so resourcefully and within budget. We will not shy away from making a vigorous case to the people of Montana that strong funding for higher education is a smart investment for individuals, families, communities and the state as a whole.
The Montana Board of Regents and my colleagues intend to strengthen UM in the years ahead. We soon will welcome a fine new president of the University. It is an exciting time on campus. Thank you for this opportunity to serve my alma mater, the spectacular University of Montana, during this bellwether year of 2017.
We are Montana. We shall prosper.
Sheila Stearns is the president of the University of Montana.