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Not-so-Happy Birthday to U

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Not-so-happy Birthday to U

As the University of Montana celebrates its hundredth year on campus, financial concerns plague the grizzled administration

[ Photos below ]

As the University of Montana turns 104, the school celebrates its centennial year on campus. It took a few years after the state established its first public institution for higher education for the University of Montana to find a permanent home in Missoula, but for 100 years now students have returned from summer vacation to the base of Mount Sentinel.

On the surface at least, this year seems little different. The day after Labor Day, campus swarmed with packs of returning students, most of whom seemed more bent on social pursuits than academic concerns -- and hardly a soul discussed the ongoing financial dilemma faced by the institution.

Talk around the Oval, where Rudy Autio's grizzly sculpture stands, focused on summer vacations and tonight's party. Few students, if any, discussed next year's looming tuition increase, administrative budgetary issues or the school's faltering national reputation, recently documented in U.S. News and World Report.

But despite the fact that UM's woes, financial and otherwise, made for drab conversation on the first day of the semester, administrators are struggling to decide how to shore up the school's coffers, and stem the tide of privatization and the burdens it brings.

These concerns are not new, of course. The school has been a noble enterprise running on a shoestring for its entire existence. And after a spring in which the Montana Legislature stung the university system, cutting $3.2 million from the requested budget, the school finds itself in a position it knows all too well.

In an partial effort to offset the university system's financial quagmire, the 1997 Montana Legislature also came up with a $6 million infusion. It was enough to save 1,200 subsidized slots for Montana residents. The last-minute addition, which took a massive lobbying push to bring off, came at the end of a session in which cuts as large as $15 million were considered.

In the annual State of the University address last week, University President George Dennison noted, "We begin this year as we have others."

Though he continued in a hopeful tone about the coming school year, he could have just as easily recited a tale of fiscal neglect by the government that once established the school as the flagship of a system intended to offer Montanans affordable higher education.

According to state Comm-issioner of Higher Education Richard Crofts, this session's tight rein brings the entire state university system to a certain crux in its history -- and that means trouble for not just the institution of UM but its students as well.

"Per-student funding's been declining since the early '90s," he says. "For 1996-97 we had hoped we'd see some stabilization. The way it turned out, it continues to decline in real dollars, without even considering inflation.

"In the next biennium, for the first time, tuition money will comprise more than half of the total instructional budget. About a decade ago, state moneys made up more than 80 percent of that budget. It is coming to the point where something has got to give. Will it be quality or access?"

Meanwhile, students from Montana face a tuition hike of 6.5 percent over the next two years, while their out-of-state friends will pay 7.2 percent more on rates almost double those charged to natives.

As UM works overtime to find out-of-state funding both for academic programs and big-ticket construction projects, such as the much ballyhooed Fieldhouse renovation, it has to deal with a lack of name recognition in corporate circles, humble spots in national academic rankings and a recent step down in the rating of its graduate programs.

With states across the country facing strained budgets, some officials worry that today's straits might lead to a future in which schools like UM become private, not public, institutions, severing an important historic link between the school and the masses it's commissioned to serve.

"There are people who will suggest to you that so-called public, state universities will become private within the next 50 to 100 years," says UM Provost Robert Kindrick. "I don't see it happening in the next 10 years. But I do think that beyond that period of time, Montana may be considering going the way of Virginia and some other states, where students are told that instead of paying 35 percent of the cost of their education, they must pay 75 percent.

"I do fret about where we're headed."

A look in the rearview

Kindrick and other advocates of the university system can perhaps take perverse comfort in the fact that, while troubles may be coming to a head, Montana's first university has always coped with money problems.

UM finds its beginnings in an 1893 act of the legislature. A full-fledged political tussle followed. Towns around Montana vied with old-school ferocity and wile for the newly created cash cow. According to The University of Montana: A History by H.G. Merriam that marked the school's 75th anniversary, Missoula's bid was based on the city's railroad accessibility and physical loveliness.

Those charms were fortified by the efforts of the Garden City's prominent class, which ponied up five gallons of whiskey, a case of beer, 350 cigars and a formidable array of food and other drink during one lobbying round. In a classic case of pork-barrel politics, Butte, Bozeman, Havre and Dillon all got a taste of higher education's fiduciary nectar, despite almost-universal recommendations that the state's system be unified at one location.

After a few initial sessions on what are now the grounds of the defunct Williard School on South 6th Avenue West, UM (the name was changed to Montana State University in 1917, and then back again in 1965) moved to campus, a largely empty expanse well to the east of Missoula's then city limits.

While building continued apace for some decades, the general level of support accorded by the Montana Legislature remained, in the words of Oscar Craig, the first president, "a dreary subject for consideration."

The litany of problems chronicled in Merriam's history is familiar enough: budget cuts, strained bond issues, salaries too low to attract and keep quality faculty, fallings out between administrators, no large private gifts until the 1960s. Still, the school managed to do all right by the people of Montana, offering tuition-free education -- as was its original mandate -- for decades.

As UM President Ernest Melby wrote in 1942, while many students were off fighting in World War II, where nearly 200 of them would be killed, "[UM] has rendered a type of service which is far more significant than would be expected in view of the support the state has given the institution."

Such a plucky legacy is worth bearing in mind today, as UM struggles under the tread of more than 11,000 students, the large majority of whom are Montanans seeking to take advantage of the state's historic promise to educate them. It is typically that commitment to providing a means for self-improvement to Montanans of which university officials speak with the most pride.

It's also what they worry the most about losing.

The cost of a private future

Montana now shells out nearly $125 million of the $500 million it costs to operate its universities. Dennison says that's about normal for states like this one, but notes that the level of state support has declined dramatically since the 1980s.

The school, he says, has come to rely on private funding and tuition increases more and more. "It's a function of what's been going on across the country. There are increasing pressures on state dollars. The major issue today is that, as the sources of funding change -- and they will continue to change -- we have to make sure that we maintain the public nature of these institutions."

Dennison says that effort must be made even if the state's financial commitment to its schools remains dodgy at best. "If you say you're going to change the mission of the university because the people of the state can't afford to give as much money as you'd like, then you have fundamentally transformed the nature of the institution from a public to a private one.

"The pressure on the state dollar is constantly increasing," he adds. "What would you do when confronted by the choice to either increase funding for higher education or correct known deficiencies in the prison system? Most of us would probably say, give it to education, which is fine in the long term.

"But what about the short term, when the people in prison take you to court?"

In the past, schools have usually dispelled legislative disappointments with tuition increases, including the one currently being implemented.

According to Kindrick, however, student pockets, especially native ones, are emptying fast. "The students always end up paying more, and frankly I'm not sure how to avoid that at this stage, he says." Kindrick notes that the need to keep tuition low, especially for in-state students, tests Montana's commitment to education at its foundation and brings the university system's corresponding responsibility to the state into question.

"That needs to be rethought," he says. "The state has to make a determination as to how important it is to Montana to have subsidized opportunities for higher education, for upward mobility, for the children of the state. If the state decides that this is not important, well, that decision needs to be addressed.

"Many people are not willing to face this fundamental question," he says. "There are a whole bunch of people who say, 'Well, we'll just raise tuition again.' But you can only do that for so long until the students begin to say, 'Hold on, I grew up in Montana, my parents have paid taxes here for years, and what am I getting out of it?' You never know exactly when students are priced out of the market, when it becomes beyond their reach."

As the executive director of the UM Foundation, the school's primary fundraising outfit, Larry Morlan is one of UM's front-line soldiers in the war against financial hardship. Morlan has rounded up millions of vital dollars, he says, about $6 million last year alone.

Though much of the foundation's efforts focus on immediate needs like scholarships and construction costs, Morlan says his people are planning for a day when UM may look more like a private school than a public one. Some of that new reality, paralleling similar developments across America, can be glimpsed in the brand new Gallagher School of Business, the emerald-colored, glass-heavy showpiece that opened last year.

Morlan describes the financing of the Gallagher as "the wave of the future." The $15.5 million to pay for it came from a mix of public bond money and private donations, most prominently the $1 million in seed money given, in exchange for a little immortality, by the late William Gallagher.

Should any other big-hearted patrons want their name slapped on a future campus fixture, the foundation has compiled a helpful list -- to get a school or college named after you, it'll take at least $3 million; an endowed chair goes for $1.5 million; getting your name on a professorship takes at least $500,000.

According to Morlan, while high profile buildings like the Gallagher Building, the Washington-Grizzly Stadium and the Davidson Honors College (built entirely with private funds) have gotten most of the attention in the past few years, such projects are no longer the foundation's main concern.

"We just happened to have a significant backlog of brick-and-mortar needs that had to be taken care of," he says. "In the future, we'll shift to library needs, scientific equipment, endowments, as well as the continual emphasis on scholarships."

It's probably safe to say that U.S. News and World Report hasn't helped Morlan's cause much lately. In its annual ranking of the nation's colleges, released last month, the glossy weekly placed UM (and Montana State University) in the bottom tier of national institutions. Ironically, the World Report's harsh judgment came just as the UM Grizzly football team found itself atop preseason national rankings for its division.

This is the kind of coincidence that makes students and educators invoke words like "priorities." In a time when the university is struggling to find a path into its future and working to maintain its delicate relationship with the people of the state, it would seem the school has a long way to go.

One of the biggest men on campus, George Dennison in this case, disagrees. "You can get an education here that's second to none," he says. "If you're ready for it. This college is fourth in the entire country in the graduation of Rhodes Scholars. That right there says something about the school and the students who choose to come here.

"Does that count in those rankings? Probably not for much. But I think it counts a great deal. I think those rankings are largely done as a popularity contest. Maybe a few years ago, when A River Runs Through It came out, we would have done better."

Education commissioner Crofts, for his part, worries about maintaining a high standard despite shrinking moneys. To him, the promise of access to higher education becomes empty if suddenly there's just no there there.

"There remains a very strong sense that we're here to provide the people of Montana with education when they need it and where they need it," he says. "We're faced with a huge challenge of how to do it. We can't continue to do it with big tuition increases.

"To reach the point where we can't educate all the qualified people is not something we like to think about. But we also don't want to reach a point where we're not giving them the quality they want and deserve."

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Photo of University Hall
UM's Main Hall, shown in this 1890's photo, was built shortly
after the state decided to base the newly-founded university in
Missoula. Photo courtesy Stan Cohen, Pictorial Histories Publishing.

Photo of George Dennison

President George Dennison kicked off the year acknowledging
that the University of Montana continues to face
fiscal challenges. Photo by Jeff Powers.

Campus sports photo

Sports have long been a mainstay of campus life --
but when the football team outranks a school's academic standing,
critics say priorities have been misplaced.
Photo courtesy Stan Cohen, Pictorial Histories Publishing.

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