The University of Montana released its “Strategy for Distinction” last week. SPOILER ALERT: The strategy is cuts. The 20-page draft report recommends big cuts to faculty and staff — including the elimination of whole departments — that are the product of two years of planning by no fewer than three committees, councils and task forces. It’s a lot to digest, but two features of this document strike the reader right away.
The first is a punishing wave of business-speak. Here’s UM President Seth Bodnar addressing the unsuspecting reader on page one: “We must set a course that builds on our strengths, ensures our distinction, and provides the resources necessary to sustain quality. As stewards of the University of Montana, we must deliberately design our path forward, creating a strategy for distinction that enhances key areas of strength and future opportunity.”
I agree that UM’s path forward should be something we “deliberately design.” Whatever we do for the university, we should do it on purpose. We should also “ensure our distinction” and continue UM’s long tradition of being a different school from other schools. As we set a course to sustain quality, the areas of strength and opportunity that we enhance should be, in all cases, key.
When so many words say so little, you know the author is trying to avoid something. This brings us to the second feature of Bodnar’s report. The truth that this uniform paste of corporate buzzwords refuses to admit is that the Strategy for Distinction is not a plan to “celebrate another 125 years of excellent service to students.” It is a plan to make the University of Montana cost less.
That’s weird, because I thought we had an enrollment problem. Since 2010, total enrollment has dropped by 30 percent, and the trend shows no sign of reversing. Enrollment dropped again this year, even after at least two administrations declared attracting more students their No. 1 priority. The Strategy for Distinction gives the lie to that claim. I don’t know what would attract more students to UM, but offering fewer classes, abandoning whole majors and reducing the number of teachers and administrators available to give students what they’re paying for probably won’t.
Come to the University of Montana! We’ve eliminated the Department of Modern and Classical Languages, just for you.
“The Strategy for Distinction is not a plan to ‘celebrate another 125 years of excellent service to students.’ It is a plan to make the University of Montana cost less.”
Enrollment is not the problem that the Strategy for Distinction seeks to solve. That’s not why the Board of Regents hired a corporate reorganization artist with no experience in university administration. We can blame the university’s $10 million budget shortfall on falling enrollment, but UM is only in crisis because the regents — and by extension the state legislature and the voters who elected them — don’t want to spend any more money on our flagship university than we already do.
In fact, they want to spend less. Lower enrollment has forced UM to cut costs because the university is funded on a per-student basis. If we wanted, we could raise the university’s per-student funding and keep everything the way it is. If we were really concerned about enrollment, we could even spend more money as an investment in attracting new students, and make a plan to recoup the expense through increased volume over the next decade. If that sounds too expensive, we could just make up the $10 million shortfall with special funding.
That’s what we do for the athletic department. A 2015 analysis by economist and state Sen. Dick Barrett found that public funding subsidizes UM athletics to the tune of about $8.6 million a year. That’s 86 percent of the money the university is trying to save by cutting academics and administration, right there. I am not saying we should disband the football team and plough the money back into the College of the Humanities. I am saying we could avoid most of the painful cuts the Strategy for Distinction describes if we cared about the University of Montana as much as we care about the Griz.
To do that, though, we would have to admit that UM’s budget crisis is a problem of our own making. We would have to stop calling these cuts our response to the enrollment crisis and instead call them what they are: the continuation of a three-decade plan to shift the cost of public education onto students. In 1992, the state of Montana paid 78 percent of the cost of educating each student in our public university system. Today, it pays 39 percent.
Maybe enrollment is down because we’ve been asking students to pay more for the same education. Last week, President Bodnar announced UM’s plan to ask them to pay the same for much less. It’s dishonest to call that a Strategy for Distinction, but we shouldn’t blame Bodnar for that. We didn’t hire him to increase enrollment or strengthen the University of Montana. We hired him to do our dirty work, and to tell us it’s necessary every step of the way. So far he’s doing a fine job.
Dan Brooks is on Twitter at @DangerBrooks.