The Reform of the Montana University System

William Plank
Foreign Languages and Literature
Eastern Montana College

In the last several years, the general budgetary misery afflicting the educational establishment in the whole nation has caused programs to shrink or disappear in the public schools and in higher education. Barbara Bergman's article in Academe on administrative bloat got the attention of legislators and taxpayers more than any recent statement and legislators in Montana have gone so far as to propose amendments abolishing the office of the commissioner of higher education.

The commissioner paid a consultant $85,000 to demonstrate that the Montana University System (MUS) was not administratively bloated, a report which enraged many people because it compared the MUS since 1987 with other bloated institutions and concluded that the MUS was normal. If the consultant had compared the percentage increase in the commissioner's budget since the office was created during the administration of Governor Judge, he would have seen that the increase was 2400%, an increase which if reflected in the increase in student numbers, would have produced 600,000 students. If it had included the increase in administration in the six units and in the construction of the commissioner's new building, then a commensurate increase in the student population would have crowded the halls of the Last Best Place with about a million students. The following is an outline for a proposal to reorganize the university system, a proposal worked out in a 45-page paper elsewhere, and which is available on request.

The Board of Regents

The governor should continue to appoint a board of regents and there is no need to change the length of the term they serve. The role of that board must be restricted, however, to hiring, evaluating, and retaining or dismissing the central president. The regents, despite our democratic ideals and the importance of citizen participation, are amateurs who must not be involved in the day-to-day operation of the system. At present, they determine such things as whose buildings will get smoke detectors, whose parking lots will be paved, etc.--housekeeping items unworthy of their attention. If the regents of the state of New York behaved this way, they would not have time enough in their lives for such details.

There is no need for regents to be elected on the assumption that election will make them more responsive to the needs of public education. Election does not guarantee competency, only the possibility of voting them out and replacing them with someone else who may be voted out. You do not nominate and vote on your physician, you choose him or her based on how competent you are to judge the doctor's skill. Neither should the Board of Regents be abolished so that the legislature may run the university system. Putting the legislature in control of the university system would further politicize the MUS, make it unwieldy and unresponsive to changing trends in education, would not make anybody more responsible for its operation, and would so damage the necessary versatility of public higher education that the system would become dysfunctional.

The Commissioner of Higher Education

The office of the commissioner must be abolished. Since the creation of this office under the administration of Governor Judge, higher education has not got better, it has got worse. Higher education has been redefined as administration, endless studies which come to nothing, meetings which solve nothing, administrative travel which comes to $1 million a year (see "MUS Expenditures by Object," The Montana Professor [Winter 1993]: 40, table 3), needless expensive consultants creating redundant reports, outmoded ideas such as outcomes assessment which cost millions of dollars per year, plans to down-size the system all the while every unit contradicts those plans by recruiting by brochure, by TV, and in person. The office of the commissioner should be abolished because it has been an expensive failure.

The size of the Montana University System

Depending on how and when you count the student body of the MUS, there are about 26,000-27,000 students, spread out in six units. They are governed by administration of five presidents, one provost, a commissioner of higher education with a regiment of assistants to the presidents, vice presidents, deputy commissioners, division chairs, deans, assistant deans, etc. There are about a dozen universities in the United States with 50,000 students, each university having one president. One president is all we need in Montana, even if our students are spread out in the six units. We are not slaves to geography. We have telephones, computer networks, and fax machines, and most of the work of administration can be done without eye-contact and lunch. Registrars all over the country have long ago found that enrollment can be done by mail, phone, and computer.

The President of the Montana University System

There should be one well-paid president of the MUS, and he or she should be housed at Montana State University because Bozeman is centrally located. He or she should be housed in the present president's office--no new office should be built. A good number of people, legislators and professors alike, fear that such a move would cause that president to give favorable status to the campus on which he is housed. Such a fear in groundless. In any case, the abuse of the system could hardly be worse than it is at present.

This central president would be given a mandate to the effect that he is president of the whole system, that students are students in the Montana University System regardless of the accidents of geography and history. This president is responsible for the operation of the whole system. In one person, we identify the locus of responsibility and if that person does not perform, the Board of Regents will remove him. Otherwise, the Board of Regents cannot legally interfere with the daily operation of the system. In this way, a specialist is made responsible for the functioning of the system, the influence of political meddlers and amateur tinkerers is at a minimum, yet responsibility is easily identified and the person in charge rewarded or replaced. At present nobody in Montana is immediately responsible for the efficient operation of the system. The regents, the legislature, and even the governor have historically turned to endless and pointless reports and studies, based too often on interviews with members of the public whose expertise in higher education was about the same as their knowledge of neurology.

There should be no officer of the university system above the level of dean on any campus. Along with the central president, there will be a central vice president for academic affairs, a vice president for business affairs, etc. All recruiting and public relations, all community service and extended studies will be in the central office. To the extent possible, there will be one catalog for the university system and professors in the whole system will be answerable to the same standards for tenure and rank advancement, no matter whether they are in the smaller units or in the larger units.

Unionization in the MUS is a fact. At present, each unionized unit bargains separately with the commissioner's office and produces a separate contract. Centralized administration should bargain for one system-wide contract, i.e., for all the units which are at present unionized.

Each campus should be called the University of Montana at Bozeman, Missoula, Billings, Havre, Dillon, Butte, etc., and the stationery will be standardized. All petty competition for funds among the units will be ended--the central president will make a unified presentation to the legislature for the budget. In this way, we have nobody responsible for the operation of the university system but specialists, and they are specialists who are not insulated and isolated from the public but may be replaced by the Board of Regents.

Committees of Deans

Since each campus does have a geographical reality, which must not be allowed, however, to make it less part of the real system, there may occasionally be problems unique to that campus. Each school on each campus is responsible to the central president and vice presidents.

When problems arise which may be unique to one of the campuses, the central administration will call a meeting of the deans on that campus. Each of the deans will chair these meetings on an ad hoc basis for the purpose of making decisions which are required by the central administration. The dean who chairs that particular meeting will have his or her secretary prepare the requested report and mail it or fax it to the central administration. Large corporations have found that transporting people for meetings and for the exchange of information is fatally inefficient. It is time the university system realized it, too.

Deans are responsible to a vice president. At Eastern Montana College, three deans are answerable to an academic vice president. At the University of Montana, for example, the deans of law, of graduate studies, of business, of arts and sciences, and of education are answerable to an academic vice president. Every dean in the system will be answerable to the central vice president so that an academic vice president will have fifteen or more deans to deal with rather than three to five. Deans under this system will become more important in the operation of their schools and will not have time to indulge in pseudo-work, pointless meetings, unnecessary studies, etc. The best dean I ever knew, a dean of Arts and Sciences at EMC, got the work of the school done in about three hours or less per day and still had time to pursue research that made him internationally known.

This system will work. The present proliferation of administrators ends up with the creations of self-justifying but unnecessary activities in order to give the illusion that the position is necessary. We have to learn again that academic excellence lies in the quality of the programs, not in the number of assistants to the vice president, the dean, or in the number of deputy commissioners.


We must not allow ourselves to believe that the geographical separation of the units and the financial interest of each of the communities where these units are located make it impossible to have a true university system. Basically, nothing below the level of dean need change on any of the campuses. A leaner administration is a better administration; it is well known in industry and in all institutions that a proliferation of bureaucracy damages production severely by redefining the role of that institution and changing the definition of production. An automobile assembly line cannot compete if it has as many bosses as workers. A ranch which has as many bosses as cowboys will be taken over by the bank. We must not allow ourselves to believe that the other units are our enemies and that if we put a central president at one of the units he or she will aggrandize that unit at our expense.

At present the MUS has a bureaucracy big enough to run a university of 100,000 students. Not merely has that bureaucracy failed, but it has damaged the versatility of the system, and created distrust and noxious competition among the units. The professors of the Montana University System are interested in good teaching, good scholarship, and good research; they therefore want a unified system where inter-unit squabbling encouraged by the bureaucracy is at an end and where they can all work together to produce a graduate who can make a living, understand the world in which he or she lives, and participate authentically in the unrolling of human history. The time for meetings, commissions, committees, special studies, consultants, and sounding out public opinion by endless meetings around the state, etc., is at an end. Put the system under one central president, someone in whom we can identify responsibility, someone we can reward and someone we can fire. The money we can save by such centralization can handsomely pay such a person to stand the stress of such a mission.

Trends in higher education evolve and must evolve with the requirements of society, of commerce, of technological development, with the complex cyclical nature of world economy, and with people's evolving value systems. A board of regents composed of laymen working part-time on such a complex cultural entity cannot hope to guide the system in a way which promotes the security and happiness of our citizens.

Montana has evolved a system of higher education in which nobody is responsible and in which nobody can be made responsible. The taxpayer is as helpless to deal with this faceless organism as he is to take out his own appendix. Montanans who have the money and whose children are lucky enough to go to Montana high schools which offer four years of a foreign language, math through calculus, orchestra, enriched English, physics, and biology, and who score high on the SAT go to the great private universities of the United States. The other students go to the Montana University System, where the professors increasingly find their energies and resources sapped by administrative busy-work and the necessity to protect themselves through law suits, appeals to the human rights workers, and through collective bargaining.

I spent the summer of 1991 on the campus of the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, a campus larger than all the units of the MUS put together in one place. It is simply preposterous to believe that one person cannot be the president of 26,000-27,000 students and the faculty which teaches them. Restructure the system so that the faculty can go back to work teaching students and creating new knowledge.

Contents | Home