MSU Billings graduation

Graduates and their families gather for the 2019 Commencement Convocation for Montana State University Billings at the Rimrock Auto Arena.

For all the smart people gathered around the table at last week's Montana University System Board of Regents meeting, they sure made a ridiculous decision.

As the regents and university officials discussed performance-based funding, which gives money to campuses which meet certain targets, the regents passed out cash to struggling programs like it was Christmas morning. Except to one institution: Montana State University Billings.

Of course, there were the obligatory platitudes about what a great job MSUB Chancellor Dan Edelman is doing at turning the trends in a more positive direction. And everyone acknowledged that stability at Montana's third-largest campus has been lacking. 

To make ridiculous even more absurd, there was heading nodding that the measurement system was punishing an institution making positive strides. And, yes, of course, it didn't seem fair that every single institution from the two-year colleges to the four-year universities got something while MSUB got zero, but, well, the system is the system.

If there's a better definition of bureaucracy, we have not seen it.

That kind of mindless bureaucracy is stunning. Everybody sitting around the table agreed it didn't seem fair nor fitting. And yet the sheep-like regents, except for one, marched along. 

If the regents can't even stop something this obvious, how can they even be trusted with harder, more nuanced decisions? If the regents are nothing more than a collection of rubber stamps, ready to dutifully march along to whatever tune the university system staff play, then it's high time to reconsider the structure of leadership at the university system.

We need regents who ask questions, probe deeply, discuss robustly, and show a little backbone. Sadly, there will probably be more reaction to this editorial from the regents than there was to the inequity of performance-based funding.

Billings-based regent Martha Sheehy was the lone regent to question the approach of this funding and the equity of it. Of course, we can't expect other leaders who are getting their share of the financial largesse to speak up for one of their sister institutions and appear anything but grateful for the extra dollars in a system perennially in need of funding.

We applaud Commissioner Clayton Christian who recognized the inherent problems with the funding model, but we also hold him responsible for it. He is the leader and the commissioner. To see the problem, acknowledge and not fix it is failed leadership that will literally cost Billings millions of dollars.

We can see and have reported the trends for MSUB changing. And Edelman and his administration have been faced with some tough decisions to resize and reinvent the campus. 

Missoula saw a drop in undergraduate degrees by 14 percent, averaging almost a 300 per year drop. Billings saw a drop of 20 percent or more than 100 on average. Missoula increased its graduate degrees by 10 percent, and Billings increased by 4 percent.

Missoula, a similarly struggling university, got 100 percent of its funding, or $3.6 million.

Billings got zero.

Look at the numbers. Missoula certainly shouldn't have been given a full portion, but neither should have Billings received a goose egg. 

We believe that there should be some economic consequence for not hitting all the targets. In other words, MSUB should not have received all its funding. MSUB officials budgeted for just that scenario. Instead, it received much less than it bargained for or deserved.

Sheehy, who also represents The Billings Gazette in cases of public documents and open meetings, raised the best question: If a university is struggling and it's demonstrating effort at improvement, how does it help to punish it financially? In other words, we're going to kick an institution when it needs support the most.   

This kind of approach would fail any freshman logic course. 

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