Royce Engstrom has had one heck of a year. In January, the board of regents gave the embattled University of Montana president a raise, even though plummeting enrollment forced him to enact layoffs throughout the school. In May, the Montana Associated Students named him 2016 Administrator of the Year, citing those very layoffs as the group commended him for "realigning the workforce so that the budget reflected the institution's current enrollment." Then, last week, the regents fired him.
He was not technically fired, of course. The head of the board of regents, Clayton Christian, announced only that Engstrom had decided to step down. The statement implied that the deposed president came around to Christian's point of view that he should not be president anymore.
"After careful discussion and consideration, University of Montana President Royce Engstrom and I have decided that he will step down as UM's president effective December 31," Christian wrote. "I asked President Engstrom to consider this transition at this time based on my belief that a change in leadership direction is the right step for UM going forward."
Engstrom has declined to speak to reporters ever since, presumably because he is busy getting his car washed before he goes to pick up his Administrator of the Year award from the frame shop. If we want to understand what happened, we can only peer at Christian's statement, the most interesting phrase of which might be "at this time."
Why now? It might be because enrollment at UM's main campus was down another six percent this fall—the fifth consecutive year of decline, amounting to a total drop of almost 25 percent that began the year after Engstrom took office. It might also have something to do with his weak performance at November's board of regents meeting. Engstrom assured everyone that UM has a "laser-beam focus" on increasing enrollment, but the details did not live up to the precision of his metaphor. The overall impression was of a president who knew what he needed to do, but still wasn't sure how he planned to do it.
None of that matters now, because Engstrom is finished. He leaves UM with a straitened budget and the opportunity to hire its third president in seven years. Fortunately, the same day Christian announced his and Engstrom's totally mutual decision, a petition surfaced to hire Denise Juneau.
- photo by Alex Sakariassen
You may remember Juneau from her recent campaign to represent Montana in the U.S. House of Representatives, which she lost to incumbent Ryan Zinke. You may remember Zinke from his role as the older brother in the movie Weird Science. As of press time, the petition has 723 signatures. I was tempted to add my name, but while I like Juneau and this idea, I'm not sure she's qualified.
As Montana's former superintendent of public instruction, she's more qualified than a lot of likely applicants. But she has no experience working for universities, either public or private, and UM needs someone especially skilled just now. It would be extraordinary if Juneau could right that ship the very first time she laid hands on a tiller.
But I like the idea of Juneau for president, because she is a teacher, and teaching is what UM is all about. At least it ought to be. Engstrom emphasized administration instead, in a way that may have made the school's enrollment problems worse.
When the university announced its layoffs last year, 98 percent of the planned cuts targeted instruction. Between fiscal years 2011 and 2017, UM's instructional budget increased by $2.5 million. Over the same period, Montana State increased its instructional budget by $38.5 million. One school has been putting more resources into the product students pay for. The other has scrambled to preserve its administrators while enrollment drops.
Juneau is probably not the most qualified candidate for president of UM, but at least she's a teacher. Engstrom was once a teacher, too, but his policies prioritized the other functions of the university at the expense of its core mission. If we want to save UM, we need to save it as a school, not as an administration.
During the last six years of declining enrollment, UM excelled by other metrics: capital improvements, research, athletics. But students make value judgments when they're looking for colleges, and those are not the areas they value most. They're paying for an education. You can't sell them less teaching for the same price and expect to attract more of them.
Next year, UM has a chance to offer students a better deal. I hope it will take this opportunity to hire a president who prioritizes what students and the community value most. We tried it the other way, and it didn't work. Maybe it's time to run our university like a school.
Dan Brooks writes about people, politics, culture, and the weirdness of science at combatblog.net.