Engstrom, UM enter the age of customer service

The University of Montana’s new slogan is “Let’s Go There!” In addition to delighting fans of “30 Rock,” this exclamation is everything you want in a marketing tagline. It succinctly conveys the university’s message to the public: Please attend our school, and if you can, bring some friends.

“Let’s Go There!” models desirable behavior for Montana students who, increasingly, do not want to go to UM. Enrollment at the university has declined about 20 percent since 2011, which was coincidentally the year after President Royce Engstrom took office. A lot of factors may be keeping students away: a recovering economy, competition from Montana State, high-profile sexual assault scandals—you name it.

But in his “State of the University” address last week, Engstrom named very few. He kept his remarks positive, focusing on UM’s record-high $87 million in research grants last year, along with faculty accomplishments and plans for new majors. It’s understandable that he didn’t want to spend an hour talking about the enrollment crisis. But it’s by far the most significant issue UM faces, and Engstrom’s address hardly went there at all.

He did mention the declining numbers, telling the audience that “enrollment is everybody’s job,” before touting new VP of enrollment and student affairs Tom Crady, whose job enrollment especially is. But he didn’t dwell on the problem. Instead, he focused on the solution: more students. In a press conference after his speech, he said the university’s goals are to enroll half of Montana’s graduating seniors who stay in the state and increase its portion of out-of-state students 25 to 30 or 35 percent.

He is right. The university should definitely do that. Thank goodness we have the benefit of his leadership, or we might have spent months trying to address the problem of declining enrollment without getting anywhere.

Engstrom elaborated further than that, of course, but not much. What he did say evinced an alarming concept of why UM’s enrollment dropped in the first place. Engstrom said the university needed to take a “customer service approach” to education. Students are customers and they want to get their money’s worth. If you think of the university as a business, the customer service angle makes sense.

It does at first, anyway. If you think of the university as a business for very long, though, this idea loses its appeal. UM is selling education. Perhaps, rather than offering better customer service, it should try to offer a better product. Yet education is the area Engstrom recently chose to cut.

The university cut about $12 million from its operating budget last year. The equivalent of 192 full-time positions were eliminated—five of them administrative and the other 187 academic. In this context, Engstrom’s focus on “customer service” seems like a commitment to everything but teaching.

At universities across the country, “customer service” has become a euphemism for student life: better buildings, better food, better support services, better sports, better everything except for instruction. It’s a popular approach—in part because it creates demand for administrators, and administrators are the ones who decide policy. But it also drives the vicious cycle that has made college a worsening deal for students, raising their tuition without making their degrees any more valuable.

Students in Montana and everywhere else weigh the value of their baccalaureates against the cost of earning them. Better customer service won’t make a UM degree more appealing to employers. It might make the university more superficially enticing to prospective students, but it won’t improve the school’s reputation over the long term.

That reputation is in danger now. After cutting academics and concocting a plan that emphasizes customer service over actual education, UM risks becoming known as a bad school with a nice campus and a good football team. That’s a worst-case scenario, and it’s a long way off. But Engstrom’s remarks last week did not inspire confidence.

I’m all for positive thinking. At this challenging moment in its long history, the university should be looking for opportunities, not bemoaning five years of declining enrollment. But we should not pretend students are stupid.

UM is at risk of losing its position as the state’s flagship university because it is not offering a better education than its competitors. Cutting academic budgets and turning away from the school’s core mission—in the hope that vague business-speak about “customer service” will trick students into paying the same price for a worse product—is not a viable strategy in the end.

The University of Montana isn’t selling customer service. It’s selling education. It needs to find ways to offer a better product, instead of trying to keep its students happier while teaching them less. They aren’t customers. They’re students. They know enough to distinguish what they’re actually paying for from the service that delivers it.

Missoula Independent