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UM Begins The Search For Its Next President

University of Montana's Main Hall.
Josh Burnham
Montana Public Radio
University of Montana's Main Hall

The University of Montana is wrapping up a tumultuous week. State education officials yesterday announced UM’s president will step down at the end of the month.

Montana Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian predicts history will smile on Royce Engstrom’s six years at the helm, but says change is necessary.

"We’re not talking about today or tomorrow, or the challenges that we face today or tomorrow, we’re talking about the long range future where this institution need to be, going forward," Christian said.

UM has seen enrollment drop 22 percent since 2010, student retention has been lagging, and the campus remains overstaffed despite nearly 200 staff and faculty positions being eliminated last year. That’s spurred a controversial plan to review and prioritize its academic programs.

Commissioner Christian says challenges like these are hardly unique to UM.

"It’s no surprise that liberal arts institutions around the country have seen challenges, but liberal arts programs are also incredibly important to the society within this country. They have a place – a strong place – and we need to embrace that and find where this campus can be the most relevant to the students that it serves, their families and the economy that it serves in Montana going forward," Christian said.

Montana State University’s enrollment has steadily increased as UM’s had declined. Some believe a liberal arts education is passé; that most students want to learn marketable science and engineering skills at schools like MSU.

UM pharmacy professor Doug Coffin doesn’t see it that way.

"This notion that we’ve got these liberal arts graduates working as waiters and waitresses is ridiculous. They end up with jobs – good jobs – and they can build good careers," Coffin said.

But Coffin wants UM to devote more resources to updating its curriculum to make it more flexible and innovative for prospective students.

History Professor Mehrdad Kia agrees.
"We have to rethink it in terms of how to present it as humanities and social sciences coming together with the hard sciences and other fields. It’s absurd to take away the core mission of the university and replace it with some notion of a technical school," Kia said.

UM professor Doug Coffin also encourages Montana’s higher education officials to take a serious look at tuition equalization.

"Where UM was locked into a tuition rate that was below cost. For example, tuition and fees at Montana State University were about $6,800-$6,900. At UM, they were about $6,200. That represents $5-million-dollar to $10-million-dollars over a biennium," Coffin said.

Coffin, the former president of the UM Faculty Association, says that’s money that could help prevent potential layoffs.

"The best thing that our interim president could give us is tuition equalization. The problem with that is it would also represent a steep increase in tuition for our students, so we need a tuition offset, coupled with tuition equalization," said Coffin.

Professor Mehrdad Kia, the director of UM’s Central and Southwest Asian Studies Center, hopes UM’s national search for a new president is an open and transparent process.

Mehrdad Kia: And to allow this process to also add to diversity of the university, especially Main Hall, which unfortunately has not been as diverse as we would have liked it to be.

Edward O’Brien: When you say 'diversity,' what in this case, does that mean? What would you like to see?

MK: I think the administration should reflect the amazing ethnic, gender, cultural diversity of the United States of America. But more important than all of these criteria should be competence and experience and vision.

A national search for UM’s next president is underway. State education officials hope to have him or her selected by the end of this academic year and ready to start full time by July 1. 

Professor Kia says the search represents an immense opportunity for the University of Montana. He looks to MSU for inspiration.

"Look what MSU-Bozeman did. They rolled the dice and they brought a very capable president in – Waded Cruzado. I hope we do the same and I am sure the University of Montana will thrive once again," Kia said.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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