MISSOULA — Time is of the essence for the University of Montana to stave off its enrollment decline and ensure its budget is lined up with its priorities.
At the Montana Board of Regents meeting last week, regents quizzed UM officials on its enrollment, strategic plan, and financial needs. Again and again, regents asked UM for its timeline — for changing its program spending priorities, for starters.
"This is not a broken campus," Regent Bob Nystuen said. "It's one that clearly needs some additional direction and attention and messaging to continue to restore it to where it really belongs."
The higher education officials also talked about "changing the narrative" for UM. UM vice president of enrollment and student affairs Tom Crady, for instance, said he sees it as part of his job to help spread the good word about the university's world-class faculty and academics.
Last week, Crady said, he started to hear a different tone on campus. He said people are excited about the changes that are taking place across Missoula.
"For the first time, I heard people say we feel differently about where we are right now, and I'm hearing that in town," Crady said.
UM President Royce Engstrom opened and closed the report from campus officials, but he took a back seat during some of the discussion. He said Monday the regents had requested to hear details from specific people on campus working on areas of enrollment — the provost, finance vice president, enrollment vice president, and a dean overseeing UM's strategic plan update.
At one point, Nystuen asked a question answered by vice president of finance Mike Reid, and the regent requested the president weigh in on the matter as well.
Nystuen had wondered if the budget cuts on campus had limited UM's ability to invest in programs seeing enrollment increases — and needing more resources. He named computer science as one possibility.
While UM cut its budget last year, the Commissioner's Office has noted that it's also receiving more money than it has in the past, and it's spending a record amount of money per student this school year.
Reid said the priority on campus is stabilizing enrollment, and UM does not have resources to do everything it would like to do.
After Reid commented, Nystuen asked Engstrom to share his point of view.
In response, Engstrom said he and his team appreciate the need to put money into growing areas as well as the need to move quickly.
"We have a tremendous sense of urgency about this, but at the same time, I don't have the ability to write a blank check to computer science — or anybody else — to all of a sudden ramp up," Engstrom said.
Roughly a year and a half ago, he said, UM underwent an "Academic Alignment and Innovation" process to identify growing areas. As a result, he said, UM has tried to protect business, health and computer science as it makes funding decisions.
But he said UM still is in the process of identifying the places it will take resources from in order to shift them into growing programs.
"I wish we could do that overnight, but the fact is we have to move the money to do that, and that doesn't happen overnight," Engstrom said.
Regent Bill Johnstone suggested the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education see if it can help UM with immediate resources, and Regent Fran Albrecht agreed.
In response, Commissioner Clayton Christian said a couple other campuses have similar issues, and he would look into the options. At the same time, he said the pool of funds is finite.
In his report, Reid said UM's budget is aligned with its enrollment, and it's projected to get $1 million more than it budgeted. At the same time, he said UM is spending 82.5 percent on personnel, and that number needs to be closer to 70 percent.
The amount of money going to salaries and benefits is stifling UM's flexibility to invest in other areas, Reid said.
"We have to reduce our personnel," he said.
Monday, Engstrom said the figures Reid reported were to illustrate UM is "personnel heavy" and show that it still needs to make adjustments, but the numbers shouldn't be taken too literally.
One year ago in a budget forum announcing cuts, Engstrom said UM's goal was to be at an 18 to 1 student-to-faculty ratio. After public outcry, UM didn't make the reductions in faculty to get to that figure, and with another enrollment drop this fall, the campus didn't move the dial much from its 16 to 1 ratio.
In a brief telephone conversation, Engstrom said UM doesn't have a deadline to hit the target ratio, but it needs to move in that direction. He also said the cuts UM made last year resulted in some progress.
"We know that that's the direction that we need to head, and that's what we will do as we move forward," Engstrom said.
During the update, Nystuen said the enrollment decline at UM affects vendors at the mall and downtown. As such, he wanted to be certain the university was communicating its positive momentum and "controlling the message" itself.
Crady said he sees it as part of his job to help change the narrative, and it takes help from the community to "turn the enrollment ship around." He gives an interview just about every other day, he said, and he's become more recognizable in Missoula than he's ever wanted to be.
But his many conversations with community members and media interviews give him the chance to share UM's successes with a broader audience. He estimates enrollment will go up 3 percent next fall, but he said that's a low estimate.
In his opening remarks to the enrollment update, Engstrom said UM's academic quality remains excellent, and its priority is bringing in more students.
"We have a laser beam focus on this issue, and we are going after it with a multifaceted approach," Engstrom said.