Meeting prompts dialogue of Board of Regents’ duties, efficacy

Before the Board of Regents can make good decisions, before it can convince Montana legislators about funding needs for higher education, it must first figure out what its own job duties are, said Regent John Mercer.

By BETSY COHEN of the Missoulian

However, the regents don’t agree on what the job entails.

At a public meeting in Missoula on Wednesday, Regent Mark Semmens said he believes the board’s duty is "advisory in nature," and feels the board is very proactive and inquisitive.

Mercer disagreed: He said he believes the board must be "more hands-on," and that it is out of touch Montanans.

The meeting was held at the Missoulian and was prompted by the regents, who did not agree with a Missoulian editorial that stated they weren’t managing the university system and therefore not fulfilling their constitutional duty.

To clarify their point that the regents have been doing their jobs, Semmens passed out a one-page list of initiatives the board has acted on. Among the items listed was the elimination of low-productivity degree programs, a new strategic plan for the Montana University System, and emphasis on economic development and outreach to business groups.

However, it was clear not all the regents disagreed with the editorial.

"There is absolutely no way the Board of Regents is managing the university system," Mercer said.

As examples, Mercer said the regents had no influence in decisions involving salary raises – the biggest budget expense for all universities – or in the millions of dollars spent on workers’ compensation claims last year.

"No amendments to the budget were brought to the regents," he said. "So it is difficult to say the university system is being managed."

"If the regents did their job, they would get involved with allocation."

Mercer also said that since last spring the regents have given critics plenty of ammunition. They supported the purchase of a $300,000 home for the chancellor at Montana State University-Northern, which was only amended when Havre residents expressed their disapproval, he said.

Mercer also argued that Commissioner of Higher Education Dick Crofts caused more public damage when he said the university system couldn’t abide by Gov. Judy Martz’s request to cut $3 million from the budget without imposing a tuition surcharge. It was a dishonest statement, Mercer said, because in the end, "$7.2 million was cut, and they lived with it."

All of these issues, he said, come down to the regents’ tradition of making decisions in isolation from the state’s residents.

Creating a more open dialogue with all of the residents of Montana, and in particular, legislators, will result in progress for the university system because more people will feel involved and care more about its future, said Mercer, a former longtime lawmaker.

Ongoing conversations must be held between taxpayers and regents, he advised.

"We have to find out what is important to the citizens of Montana and work with them on how we are achieving these things," he said.

Although Semmens agreed that the board could do even more outreach, and more communicating with taxpayers and legislators, it has been actively doing just that by hosting listening sessions with communities and organized public groups across the state.

Regent Margie Thompson, who has been on the board for seven years, said Mercer’s idea is one that has been set in motion and acted on for years.

"Some of us don’t want headlines for what we have been doing," Thompson said. "I know I have traveled all over this state – as do others to talk to people about what they are concerned about how and how we could do things better."

Proof that the regents are doing their jobs and that the university system is in touch with state values can be found by looking at current enrollment, she said.

"Enrollment is up on all campuses – but one," she said. "We have to be doing something right. And the students who are flocking to campus know where they want to go and what they want to do."

Although the regents have varying opinions about the work they do, becoming a more effective group takes work.

Said Semmens: "It’s a process."

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at [email protected].

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