Like I Was Saying

After Dennison

This year, fall enrollment at my alma mater fell again

I attended University of Montana in what now would be considered its heyday. Enrollment was increasing. The school was breaking ground on several new buildings. I worked two jobs on campus and loved them both. I was optimistic about my future, as were most of my classmates.

George Dennison, a Flathead High School graduate who passed away last week at 81, was the school president during my days in Missoula. For better or worse, he was an imposing figure — at least to a college newspaper reporter sitting in his office in Main Hall. His confidence was at once admirable and intimidating, which is a solid recipe for someone overseeing thousands of 20-somethings.

In those years, school pride was palpable. I attended nearly every Grizzly football home game clad in maroon and silver. Before graduating, I celebrated as the team won the 2001 national championship.

Dennison, the longest-serving president in the school’s history, loomed large during his tenure from 1990 to 2010. Most students knew him by name, and many even knew where he lived, pointing to his home in the university district as they walked by, saying, “That’s Dennison’s house.”

Of course, he had his detractors, some of whom chided him for overbuilding. Dennison left his mark. Over his 20 years in Main Hall, UM added more than 1 million square feet of campus infrastructure. Yet he also grew the campus endowment from a meager $17 million to $120 million. And enrollment continued to swell long after I graduated in 2002.

By 2010, Dennison’s last year at the helm, the student body at UM and its affiliate Missoula College totaled more than 15,000 students. Things were looking up. Then they weren’t. Then they got worse.

This year, fall enrollment at my alma mater fell again and tallied just 12,419 students, a 6.7 percent drop from the previous year and the sixth consecutive decrease in enrollment. Meanwhile, UM’s in-state rival Montana State University saw its population swell again, counting a record 16,440 students (that number includes Gallatin College).

For the last few years, our state’s two flagship universities have been going in two decidedly different directions. And at UM, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Between 2010 and 2012, negative publicity swirled around the school over the university’s handling of sexual assaults, including those leveled against players on the school’s beloved football team. It only intensified after Jon Krakauer wrote a book on the subject titled, “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town.”

There was no “rash” of rapes in the city during this time, as Krakauer makes clear. Instead, the author scrutinizes the local criminal justice system. So did the U.S. Department of Justice, which launched a prolonged and widely reported investigation into how the school, City of Missoula and Missoula County handled reported assaults.

Those three entities have since reformed their processes in an agreement the DOJ called “a blueprint that can serve as a model for campuses across the nation.” But in subsequent years, enrollment at the school continued to fall.

Other factors UM officials have pointed to as reasons for the dwindling student population is the state’s stagnant high school student population and the lack of engineering programs similar to those offered at MSU.

Perhaps. But I wonder how Dennison would have handled all this. He may not have been able to stem the losses, but not because of lack of leadership, something UM sorely needs now.