Education

What’s Wrong at the University of Montana? Follow the Money.

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UM LogoAn excellent letter, signed by a number of professors, points to some of the key issues: mismanagement, bloated administration, and focus on superficial (but expensive) public relations instead of substantive educational investment:

The problem of low enrollment and the need for budget cuts stems not from bad luck or unfortunate circumstances, but rather from mismanaged budgetary calculations. In the interest of maintaining a quality curriculum that can attract students, the UM administration must assume responsibility for its poor decisions and balance the university budget by cutting its own administrative expenditures.

This effort can begin in several ways: UM should impose an immediate freeze on all bureaucratic searches, hires and salary increases. It should also cut all expensive and frivolous travel, receptions, as well as unnecessary administrative positions.

Back in December, the Wall Street Journal explored the explosive growth of administrative costs at universities while students are increasingly bearing the burden of tuition and fee increases:

Across U.S. higher education, nonclassroom costs have ballooned, administrative payrolls being a prime example. The number of employees hired by colleges and universities to manage or administer people, programs and regulations increased 50% faster than the number of instructors between 2001 and 2011, the U.S. Department of Education says. It’s part of the reason that tuition, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, has risen even faster than health-care costs.

The University of Montana’s budget doesn’t list an explicit category for administrative costs, but Instruction only accounts for 49% of the entire budget.  A report by the admittedly conservative Goldwater Institute shows that the University of Montana has seen steady growth in the number of administrators per student, with a slight decline in the number of professors:

  • 1993: 3.0 administrators per 100 students, 4.4 instructors per 100
  • 2007: 5.2 administrators per 100 students, 4.3 instructors

The report further indicates that the percentage growth of administrative costs at the University of Montana was 72.8%, while the national average was 39.3%. At the same time, tuition increased by 66.7% and enrollment only increased 25%.

I am a firm believer in education and state support for our schools, but it’s rankling to say the least to learn that the University of Montana is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to rebrand itself and to hire a director of integrated communications for a salary of $147,000 at the same time students and professors are being asked to cut back. Not frustrated enough by this new director? How about an Assistant Vice President of Marketing?

“This always has been a great University,” said Mario Schulzke, UM’s assistant vice president for marketing. “We just really needed a fresh storytelling platform to be able to communicate to the public all of the amazing things that are happening here on a daily basis.”

Schulzke was hired in January, along with Vice President for Integrated Communications Peggy Kuhr, to help the University refocus all of its outreach efforts.

Nearly a year and a half ago, UM hired outside consulting firm Mind Over Media to conduct qualitative and quantitative research and deliver brand recommendations. The final brand work was finished in-house and under budget this year.

I’d argue that a university cutting classes and firing professors has better ways to spend its money than on marketing tricks and bureaucrats, especially when all of those communications and public relations experts couldn’t even explain to the UM community where the cuts would fall in a timely fashion.

Note: The Montana Board of Regents issued a response to the Wall Street Journal piece, arguing the Montana University system was below the national average when it comes to administrative cost increases. It’d be interesting to see why their data diverges so much from the outside assessment.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is a seventeen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

12 Comments

  • It all boils down to retention, and the University of Montana has lost its way on that score. Their retention rates are on a downward slide, though this is a newer development. Marketing is seen as a way to get new students to replenish the ones leaving after a semester or two. This is all verifiable.

    To get more opinionated about it, the Board of Regents has spent so much time kowtowing to the U of M that they have little idea how to do much else. The smear campaign against Pat Williams as regent for speaking the truth is a direct result of that academic myopia. If the U of M is losing students and value, the question should be how to retain those young folks, not how to protect the University brand against the Wall Street Journal. Montana has another premier University that isn’t the U of M, but the competition for resource gets downplayed when it should be celebrated, and celebrated only on the gridiron.

  • Ultimately the problem I think is that universities know their money doesn’t ultimately come from their students, it comes from parents and alumni. And parents and alumni are easily impressed by new buildings and football teams. And to be fair, most 18 year old kids don’t look enough at rankings and retention like they should. Education consumers need to look at where their money is actually going – are they getting a good deal, in terms of access to professors and actual class learning, as well as the value of their degree – for their money? Not enough do.

  • As a student at the University I could not agree more with this assessment of our current financial woes. I would also point out that for how bloated and expansive our administration is, they seem to have forgotten to hire any position that wants to have a thing to do with students.

    I like to contrast my experience at the University with my experience at Montana State. Here, in Missoula, the face of the administration is Main Hall, looming over campus, and out of a line up of three I could not pick out Royce Engstrom with certainty. While in Bozeman, my experience was far different. The face of the Administration there is President Waded Cruzado. A freshman student is given the sense that if they so desire they could walk in to President Cruzado’s office and sit down to discuss whatever is on their mind. Whether or not that is the reality I cannot say as I never attempted it. Yet, I can say that in Missoula a freshman with a problem is more likely to be given the runaround through bureaucratic red tape than to feel comfortable walking into the jaws of Main Hall.

    The U has it right, they need a PR boost. It is the manner in which they are choosing to approach the problem that is the issue. Putting a nice, flashy coat of paint over rust will simply lead to peeling. The U needs to put some serious time and money into the students. With a strong and happy student population, enrollment and consequently budget issues will resolve themselves. Then a new coat of paint highlighting successes in place of trying to cover up failures will provide a much more potent PR boost.

  • I got my English and history teaching certification at the U of Montana and certainly want to see the U of Montana do well and succeed, both for the sake of UM, the students and our community and state. However, it just seems that the U of M has lost it’s way and taken it’s eye off what should be their main focus, which is educating students.

    Remember, as bad as U of M’s current financial woes are, the University of Montana in 2010 and 2011 took this entire community for a ride as UM tried to spend $16 million to $20 million installing a boutique wood-burning biomass plant right in the middle of campus next to the high-rise freshman dorms. In addition to the high initial price tag that wood-burning biomass plant would have cost UM (and Montana taxpayers) an extra $25 million to operate during the first 40 years of operation, all while increasing emissions in our already fragile Missoula Valley airshed. And just last week, for about the tenth time in the past few years, one of these wood-burning biomass plants in California exploded and started a fire, sending workers to the hospital. Yep, so why not spend nearly $50 million to put this wood-burning biomass plant right next to the Freshman dorms, right UM?

    Good thing a handful of community members in Missoula, which included former UM students, former UM professors and UM neighbors (who were called “eco-terrorists” by the late UM Vice President of Administration Bob Duringer) helped put a fork in this latest UM money pit.

    With declining enrollment at UM, and the price of college tuition (even for in-state students) going through the roof (especially when one considers the lack of well-paying jobs throughout the economy waiting for many graduates who will be burdened with heavy, high-interest student-loans) UM’s apparent philosophy of “going big” and “build it and they will come” needs to be seriously questioned by not only Missoula residents, but by everyone in this state.

  • The only branding needed at the U. of M. is DAMN FOOL scorched onto the southern cheeks of the administrators who think representing a university is akin to advertising cigarettes.

    Of course there are too many administrators; there always are. The more administrators there are, the more the ones at the top get paid. There is absolutely no institutional incentive for leaner, more efficient administration.

  • when I was a student 10 years ago it was the same damn thing; increasing fees, increasing tuition, increasing pay for administrators, and a steady degradation of the actual caliber of education.

    UM is a microcosm of the macro status quo: enrich the tippy top by exploiting the base.

  • Due to the lack of evidence, I remain unconvinced that the “caliber of education” at the U of M is steadily degrading. That is in part because I believe the caliber of education is more up to the student than to the institution. That seems to be an entirely different discussion, however. What is at stake is the amount of money committed students pay for that education. I repeat, retention is the key to stabilizing costs, and the U of M is doing a poor job at addressing that in an increasingly competitive academic environment.

    • UM had to institute a “writing proficiency test” as a condition of graduation because too many graduates lacked the basic skills to write a coherent essay. shifting blame to students doesn’t pass the smell test, kitten (and I say that only because you are a bobby cat).

      • You’re really big on the whole “blame” thing, Teddy Bear. I think that says more about you than Montana University students. Who grades those ‘proficiency tests’, I do have to wonder … (I call you Teddy Bear only because you are a fan of RapeU.)

      • Okay, so, that was kind of unfair. (Wait, no it wasn’t.) Let’s us be clear.

        A University of higher learning should not be tasked with the job of teaching people basic writing skills, nor basic mathematical skills nor even basic reading comprehension. The term “higher learning” has been coined for a reason. If the U of M is enticing students that don’t have those skills to attend its halls, then they are screwing up, and they won’t retain the students they entice. That is exactly what is happening. Montana’s best and brightest are attending MSU, and it sure as hell isn’t because of the football team, ‘the bobby cats’.

        I was accepted as a graduate student to Cornell. I ended up back in Missoula because my wife (at the time) wanted to get her degree and having been kicked out of MSU 3 times for poor academic performance, that seemed the best choice. She then got kicked out of the U. Was that the U’s fault? Uhh, no. I actually got good instruction at the U of M. They offered a pilot program in network administration, the first of its kind in this state. It is not a bad school. BUT, if they have to prove remedial writing skills then it isn’t the ‘caliber of education’, but rather the quality of student that is open to question.

        Providing an environment that hates women doesn’t really help, now does it?

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