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The State of the Universe

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We've all gotten used to watching presidents in crisis this summer, and when University of Montana President George Dennison stepped up to the microphone to give his State of the University address last Friday, it was hard to feel that he was telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

This year, the university system across Montana faces unprecedented funding hurdles, which have forced UM faculty to take de facto pay cuts, raised class sizes, forced more students to take out loans and delayed renovations in technical labs on campus. While Dennison acknowledged these issues in his speech, he focused on a rosy future; one where students are educated in a state of the art institution on par with the East Coast's pricey, private Ivy League.

"I believe that we can reach agreement after thorough discussion of the critical issues before us," he told the university staffers, faculty members and the handful of students on hand. "In doing so, we can strategically position the university for the next century."

With resident tuition and fees rising from $2,632 last year to $2,776 for the current session, Dennison left no doubt that he's determined to boost state appropriations during this winter's session to prevent even higher tuition from denying students access. "The studies show that our society will have to pay more than seven dollars in the future to deal with the problems created by refusing to invest one dollar in education today," he said.

"It makes good social and economic sense to invest in our young people rather than to try to reform or to incarcerate them later."

Outside the Montana Theatre where Dennison was speaking, the sun shone down on the students returning to campus, dragging their belongings into dorms and finalizing classes for the semester. After years, construction still lends its rumble to the background of campus life. On one end of the school, renovations have swallowed the street and sidewalk, necessitating the conversion of the parking lot into a thoroughfare. At the other, backhoes and piles of dirt mark the site of an addition to the Pharmacy Building and a counterpart to the Urey Under-ground Lecture Hall.

Some say this construction marks the only area of growth for a system held in place by a state legislature more interested in funding prisons than schools. According to figures provided by Taryn Purdy, the principal fiscal analyst for the Montana legislature, during the past ten years, general funding from state taxes has dropped. In 1988, the state supported 60 percent of the total Montana university system budget.

In 1998, a mere 46 percent of the budget for UM, Montana State University and other schools in the system was covered by the state legislature. Rising tuition and fees, revenues from a statewide levy and some federal funds have filled in the fiscal gaps.

Bob Ream, a former Missoula state senator, says the rising cost of attending school and the attendant pressure this puts on faculty and students reflect a "slash and burn mentality" on the part of the state legislature. "We no longer consider higher education to be for the public good," Ream says.

"We just look at it from the individual benefit. But if you don't look at it as an issue of the public good, you're going to pay for it in other ways than just taxes."

By contrast, laden with terminology straight out of a corporate handbook-calling faculty and staff "stakeholders," pronouncing athletic funding a part of UM's "marketing strategy," and referring to studying as "learner productivity"-Dennison's Friday address painted a disheartening but by no means dismal vision of the university's future. The business-like tone of the speech, more than anything, indicated the overshadowing presence of a bottom line to be met and a stern legislature to impress with quality and efficiency.

Surprisingly, in a speech full of vague promises and commitments to faculty, staff and students, the one area which received specific, firm commitment was the area of athletics.

Praising the program's relatively minimal reliance on state funds, Dennison pledged the administration's support of all the athletic department's programs and more privileges to athletes, including priority registration.

"We have come to take for granted the performances of our student athletes and coaches who give a great deal of themselves to enhance the image of the university," he stated. "We cannot continue to benefit from this successful program and yet fail to support it."

Less money, mo' problems For faculty and staff at UM, budget cuts mean dwindling health care benefits and deteriorating working conditions. Specifically, despite annual pay raises-professors receive on average an additional 6.9 percent a year-any gain in salary is negated by the rapidly rising cost of health insurance, says history professor Michael Mayer, head of the University Teacher's Union.

Low pay, high insurance costs and larger demands on faculty time creates an unhappy working environment on campus that could present problems for UM down the line, Mayer says. "Right now the university runs on voluntary overtime, people doing extra to make things work," he says.

"Eventually, people are going to get tired of it and say enough. I don't know when, but there's a lot of resentment because they keep asking for more and decreasing the benefits."

That means like almost everybody else in Missoula, teachers at UM are constantly struggling to make ends meet and often have an eye out for better opportunities elsewhere. "There's a resentment in the legislature towards the system as a whole, and toward the faculty and faculty salaries," Mayer charges.

"But more than that, they say they took care of us the last time. But they didn't, because what they gave with one hand they took away with the other. They can't say we'll give you a raise and then take it away by cutting benefits. It's not right or decent."

In response to the downward spiral of benefits, the faculty intends to make sure it gets heard when the time comes to discuss legislative budget this winter, says Mayer. There's a danger without some form of protest, he says, that the legislature will once again decrease the funding and indirectly cut into insurance.

On the other side of this debate legislators say that pay increases have prompted public animosity against some professors who aren't holding up their part of the bargain. Despite the increase in work load, state Rep. Royal Johnson, (R-Billings)-who acts as chairman of the Education Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee-argues that while the quality may not have decreased, there hasn't been enough measurable improvement to justify the raises.

"You have to pay people for their effort, and I'm not sure they proved a change either way. I don't think they've lost quality, but I don't think they've shown a great improvement," Johnson says.

Resentment over the relatively high salaries that professors earn compared to the state average also fuels legislators' arguments against the faculty of the university system.

Citing figures that place the professors' average pay at 43rd in the nation and the average salary per capita in Montana at 50th, Johnson wants to know why such a gap exists between taxpayers and the faculty. Pointing to the three-month summer break and funding for research that some professors receive, Johnson insists that faculty not only earn more in salary but also have an opportunity to take in a second income. Faculty shouldn't demand even more from the average state taxpayer, he says.

"You're asking people who make less money to pay more every year from the taxes they are already paying," he says.

According to Richard Crofts, the state Commission-er of Higher Education, the faculty pay increases granted for the past three years were offered as a swap for increased productivity, measured partially by an increase in teaching load-up to 20 percent more at UM and Montana State University in Bozeman.

But guaranteed yearly increases also raise suspicion from Rep. Tom Zook, (R-Miles City), the chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

"I don't see why inflation in higher education should be so much higher than the rest of the world," he says. "The rest of us have to get along as best we can. A lot of folks would enjoy getting a yearly increase."

Missoula Rep. Vicki Cocchiarella says that the antagonistic view toward educators largely demonstrates the problem with ranchers and farmers making the decisions in university funding. "They go home and talk to the neighbor, and little Johnnie didn't get the class he wanted and little Johnnie has a [teaching assistant] and then they wonder, 'Well, why are these faculty making so much?' It's an attitude rather than a one-time problem," she says.

A limited view on the recruitment and retention concerns of the university system doesn't help, she continues: "I don't think they understand that the faculty operate in a worldwide market. They resent the fact that someone in Montana makes more than $25,000 a year."

Mayer argues that to draw in professors of quality that students and administrators expect and demand, UM must offer higher wages and better benefits.

With today's lousy academic job market, which has very few positions available, UM can manage, he says, because the school can still offer fairly competitive beginning wages, he says. If the market turns around, that situation may change, Mayer says, particularly for senior positions and deans.

"People always say that UM faculty do okay for Montana," he says. "But we're hiring from a national market, so comparing only to Montana is beside the point. It's like if we get a minor league baseball team, we won't recruit players just from Montana.

"You have to consider the applicant pool." In an interview in August, Dennison acknowledged the rate of turnover. He sees more experienced faculty departing for higher salaries elsewhere. And worries that while the area attracts many qualified professors to the area-including Mayer, who says he took a pay cut and benefit drop to move here from the University of Illinois-eventually the sagging wage rate will force them to move on.

Renovating the money pit Two weeks before the undergraduates started trickling back into town, Dennison spoke at length about campus construction, private funding and the need to hold on to quality faculty. He defended the spate of renovations and new buildings that have kept UM lined with orange plastic fencing and closed walkways for the past couple of years.

Most of the new buildings, including the Harry Adams Field House, the Continuing Education Building and residential halls, will pay for themselves through fees, he says.

Dennison's rhetorical approach to the subject belies the business minded approach he takes to keeping the university strong. He seems a little touchy concerning the physical improvements on campus-but with good reason. At a time when faculty and staff must defer their annual pay increase to balance the budget, administrators say, the general cost to run the university through spring semester still outpaces available funds.

In turn, Dennison acknowledges that some may question management priorities. "It's the choice of the people giving the money to have it go towards a building," he says. "I will try to persuade them to give it for books or financial aid, but ultimately they know what they want it for.

"And we needed what we got." The most important thing remains quality of education, he says-especially with a rising cost of attending the university, which will reach $6,772 this year. With each new year boasting record enrollments, UM clearly continues to appeal to many students. In 1997, the school enrolled 10,433 undergraduates, and Dennison says they expect a slight increase again this year.

With larger student bodies come even more demands on university funds. Buildings, such as the pharmacy addition, received partial funding from the state, but mainly rely on private donations to make up the difference in construction costs. Since the money comes from donors, Dennison adds, UM has no control over what the benefactor designates to endow.

"If you don't honor the intent of the donor, they won't give the money," says Dennison, pointing out that the spiffy new facilities should attract students and boost UM's image. "If the place looks like a dump, who's going to want to come here?"

More money isn't forthcoming from the legislature, says Dennison, so the university must look to tuition for the remainder. Currently, the price of getting an education is rising faster than inflation, a dangerous situation in Montana where the nearly $7,000 price tag takes up to 16 percent of an average family's disposable income.

It's a dilemma not easily solved, Dennison continues, because of the service UM wants to provide for Montanans while keeping the standards high. "Should we hold tuition down and let the quality deteriorate or raise tuition and deny access?" he asks.

Commissioner Crofts worries that some Montana students may be left behind due to rising costs. "We don't know if there are large numbers of Montana kids who don't go to school because of the cost," he says. "But when you look at the increases in the last few years, clearly somewhere along the line you start denying access due to the tuition structure."

Montana, meanwhile, has the fifth lowest per capita income in the nation in 1997, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Rising costs shut out families who can't scrape together out of their disposable income the money to attend UM.

For the full story, pick up a copy of this week's Missoula Independent at one of more than 500 locations in Western Montana.

The new underground lecture hall is one of many construction projects the Univeristy of Montana can afford. Photo by Lise Thompson

UM President George Dennison during his State of the University address promised to work with the state legislature on funding issues. Photo by Lise Thompson

ASUM student leader Barret Kaiser maintains that the public needs to support state schools. Photo by Lise Thompson


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