HELENA - As students begin another school year, it's a time of leadership changes and ongoing budget challenges on the campuses of the Montana University System.
Its three campuses with the most students either have hired or are in the process of finding new chief executive officers to replace longtime leaders.
The first hired, Waded Cruzado, took over in January as the new MSU president at Bozeman. She replaced Geoff Gamble, who retired after nine years.
The University of Montana is searching for a successor for President George Dennison, who's retiring after 20 years of heading the Missoula campus.
And Montana State University Billings is seeking a replacement for Chancellor Ron Sexton, who retired Aug. 31 after 15 years as its campus CEO.
"You lose the great experience, the relationships and the contacts that long-serving chief executive officers have for their fund-
raising," said Sheila Stearns, Montana's commissioner of
higher education. "They know their faculty. They know their students. Of course, that's a loss."
However, new campus CEOs with fresh eyes also bring an infusion of new ideas to the
campuses and Board of Regents, she said.
Regents' Chair Clayton Christian of Missoula headed the search committees for the MSU president's job and now the UM post.
"In both searches, we've attracted a world-class group of candidates," he said.
Christian joked that "maybe you can't eat the big sky," but Montana seems to have enough national interest and "extraordinary reputation" to have drawn a remarkable pool of applicants for both jobs.
With declining tax revenues, the university system anticipates another tight two-year budget from the 2011 Legislature.
"The biggest challenge facing the university system is to serve the highest all-time enrollment and to serve it well with fewer resources than we've had in the past," Stearns said.
The system saw the equivalent of 38,900 full-time students enrolled in the 2009-10 year - a record 6 percent increase. Officials expect a 5 percent hike this year.
"That's kind of a challenge," she said. "On the other hand, we're very confident that we can do it, that it will take some real ingenuity."
"We're realistic," Christian said. "We're in the loop. We understand as a state we'll have some significant budget challenges."
Yet at a time when much of Montana's private sector has had to scale back because of the economy, he said the university system faces record enrollments. Many new students are displaced workers seeking additional education and training, particularly at the colleges of technology, he said.
The university system is efficient, said Tyler Trevor, associate commissioner for planning and analysis. He cited one study showing that Montana, through MSU and UM, ranked 49th nationally in spending per full-time students among research doctoral institutions.
Like other state agencies, the university system absorbed 5 percent budget cuts this year, said Mick Robinson, deputy commissioner for fiscal affairs. Its share totaled $4.67 million.
The regents' upcoming budget request isn't ready yet. Stearns said they will work with Gov. Brian Schweitzer and lawmakers to make it "as realistic and modest" as possible while still ensuring they serve students with quality.
Schweitzer won't unveil his two-year state budget until mid-November, but has said it will be a hold-the-line plan without tax increases.
"I oppose tax increases as I always have," Schweitzer said. "There are several sources of money for higher education: private donations through foundations, scholarship funds, dollars from students, dollars from the state and dollars from research and development."
Schweitzer, the regents and the 2007 Legislature froze student tuition system-wide for two years. Two years later, regents again held the line on tuition at all campuses except at MSU and UM, where it rose 3 percent annually.
"I get looks of surprise when I tell my (out-of-state) colleagues that nine of our 11 units have had tuition freezes for the last four years," Stearns said. "They're shocked because most of them turned to tuition.
"Compared with other states, Montana higher education is holding its own. I certainly know of many states in which my colleagues feel that their institutions are almost decimated in terms of state support."
In Montana, state support for higher education has shrunk over the past 20 to 30 years, with tuition used to make up the difference. Up until the early 1990s, state tax dollars covered 75 percent of the budget, while tuition accounted for 25 percent. Today, tuition pays for 60 percent, while the state tax dollars have dropped to 40 percent.
That's why Schweitzer and regents negotiated the two-year tuition freeze in 2007.
Student leaders remain opposed to raising tuition.
"I'm pretty confident that across the university system, I don't think any of the student leaders or students would argue for a tuition raise," said Eric Fisher, MSU student body president. "I think it would hurt enrollment."
Ashleen Williams, his UM counterpart, agreed, saying: "I think the challenges are really getting adequate funding for the state because tuition hikes can't fall on the students to the degree I think they're going to. That makes college unaffordable."
One key legislator, Rep. Bob Lake, R-Hamilton, echoed the students' concern but for a different reason.
"I don't think there's going to be a great deal of sympathy to having a tuition increase to fund increases in instructors' salaries," said Lake, who sits on an interim education committee. If the system can survive on current funding levels, "I'm thinking they're not going to suffer anything worse than that."
Last year, the regents created a workgroup headed by Regent Todd Buchanan of Billings to look at reforming and reinventing the system. It includes three regents, two legislators, two businessmen, a labor leader and the former legislative fiscal analyst.
"Right now we have a bunch of campuses with each developing a bunch of (curricula) they're known for," Buchanan said. "What we need to do as a governing board is further encourage their strategic focus on those niches and move away from the thought that every one of our campuses can afford to be everything for everyone."
Buchanan said the system needs to undertake a one-time internal audit "with budgetary teeth" in anticipation of flat or declining future budgets with tuition increases unlikely.
"We're saying, ‘OK, campuses, find the greatest return on your investment,'" he said. "At the same time, identify the lowest return on investments, programs with declining students or funding or something that has gotten too expensive to administer."
He said the regents and campuses must live in a "management environment" where certain academic programs can be dropped.
"We need to focus," he said. "If we have a campus that is regionally recognized as a top institution, why do we try to duplicate it on every campus? We could have a shared curriculum. I'm not against asking MSU's top chemistry professor to travel around (to other campuses)."
Other possibilities include using video conferencing; Skype, an Internet video conferencing tool; and podcasts, an audio sharing method, to deliver lectures to students across the system, Buchanan said.
Existing university-system distance learning has gone from 2,131 students taking at least one online course in 2001 to 7,242 in 2009 and will continue to explode, Trevor said.
"There is probably not a stronger growth trend in the university system than the growth of distance learning," Trevor said.
Another workgroup member, Sen. Bob Hawks, D-Bozeman, praised the regents for taking the responsibility for examining the entire system.
"The question is: Can we find efficiencies in sort of streamlining our system that will certainly provide savings as we go forward?" Hawks said. "We're not just in a one-time shortage."
While institutions typically resist change, Hawks said, "I have been amazed when we actually bring people to the table, and we're talking about the long-term best interests of the university, most people are forthcoming."
Schweitzer urged the regents and university officials to engage in more long-term strategic thinking and "identify the jobs of tomorrow and train the professionals."