Grunke Column: UM declining enrollment not just a campus issue

We are all aware of the significant challenges facing the University of Montana because of declining enrollment, but I don’t believe we fully recognize that this is not strictly a campus issue.
Lower student numbers and corresponding budget cutbacks at UM are a Missoula issue as well, and as active, engaged citizens we all have a responsibility to help the university.
The future of Missoula and UM are inseparable.

I often say that Missoula has an advantage over all other communities in Montana because we are home to our state’s namesake university. UM is one of the most important partners we have in our economic development efforts – and that partnership extends from President Royce Engstrom throughout the university’s administration and faculty.

In virtually every conversation I have with an existing business, a start-up or a firm looking to enter our area, our connection to UM and Missoula College is a key determining factor. The Missoula campuses are home to world-class researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs – and, importantly, the economic and civic leaders of the future.

Clearly, too, UM plays a vital role in our area’s economy. Several years ago, the Bureau of Business and Economic Research put numbers to the impact of UM on Montana’s economy. The conclusion:

“The University of Montana is a major generator of economic wealth throughout the state of Montana. Its presence in the state’s economy makes the economic pie significantly bigger. Our analysis indicates that 9,700 jobs, more than $1 billion in after-tax income, and almost $200 million in state tax revenues are attributable to the presence of UM-Missoula in the Montana economy. … The bottom line is that the university has been, and continues to be, a vital catalyst for growth in the state’s economy.”

As Missoula residents, we also recognize the importance of the many and diverse cultural amenities provided by UM. Our quality of life is enhanced every day by the presence of the University of Montana, its students and faculty. Their energy and excellence are evident throughout this great city.

So the ongoing enrollment and budgetary challenges cannot be ignored by our community. University leaders recognize that their outreach to prospective students must be more robust, and are taking the necessary steps to improve those efforts. But there is much that we can, and must, do as citizens of Missoula.

I was reminded of the importance of our individual contributions recently when a friend in Seattle said his daughter was considering where to attend college next fall. I suggested they take a look at UM, and they quickly realized Montana was the right fit – for the whole family.

We all can offer UM, and by extension Missoula, that kind of support. Every one of us should encourage our children, their friends, our nieces, nephews and grandchildren to consider UM. We must invite them to visit our city, and help coordinate with the folks on campus. We must talk about the excellence of the university’s teaching and research faculty, and the opportunities their programs provide students. We must show off our hometown university, and its successes.

These next few months are critical. Now’s the time to encourage prospective students – your loved ones – to consider Missoula and the University of Montana as they make the life-changing decision of where to continue their education after high school. Your voice can make the difference in those decisions.

Several weeks ago, I read a quote that continues to resonate: “To be a great city, you must have a great university.” I absolutely believe this to be true, and also this: We do have a great city, and we do have a great university. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that both Missoula and the University of Montana continue to prosper and grow.

James Grunke is president and CEO of the Missoula Economic Partnership. This column originally appeared in the February 28, 2016 edition of Missoulian’s InBusiness.


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