People On Campus

Students walk through campus this spring at Montana State University.

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The coronavirus pandemic could be a disaster or a blessing for Montana State University.

It would be a disaster if hundreds of Montana students don’t show up for the fall semester, figuring they’d rather take a gap year than online classes. Even worse would be if hundreds of out-of-state students – on whom MSU relies to supply 44% of its budget – decide to choose a college closer to home.

Then MSU’s expensive new classrooms, dorms and dining halls could go empty and the university could face dropping tuition revenue, shrinking state dollars, budget cuts and layoffs. National experts have already warned that the virus could put some U.S. campuses into a “death spiral.”

But MSU could also end up in a strong position. That’s if Montana can hang onto its status as a state with some of the lowest virus numbers and if MSU can pull off the in-person college experience that students crave. Then students, especially those from other states, may flock to the Bozeman campus.

MSU President Waded Cruzado sounded positive and optimistic this week in an online interview with the Chronicle. Numbers just released by the university show some support her optimism but also underscore how uncertain these times are.

“Montana State University is going to be fine,” Cruzado said. “We have great bones. We have faced challenges in our 127-year history … We’re going to be here 127 years from now.”

The virus has been a trial, for MSU and every other college.

“Never before as an institution have we had to accept change so quickly, so rapidly,” Cruzado said.

Over spring break the virus forced MSU’s decision to tell students not to return to campus and instead finish their classes online. Faculty had just one week to make the switch. Students, researchers and staff had to change how they operate.

“Each and every one showed up and did the right thing. That gives me hope,” Cruzado said. “Human ingenuity always finds a way.”

It’s true that if out-of-state students don’t come to campus this fall, that would be a big problem, she said. But relying on out-of-state tuition, which is three times what Montana students pay, wasn’t a mistake.

It was a “very creative” response to declining state support, Cruzado said, and has created great opportunities, both for out-of-state students to get an education and for Montana students, whose cost of education is subsidized.

In its latest budget, MSU expects to get 70% of its revenue from student tuition and 28% from the state. The single biggest revenue source is out-of-state tuition, 44%.

MSU doesn’t usually release enrollment numbers on how many students have applied and registered, until after the formal payment date in September, at the direction of the commissioner of higher education’s office, Cruzado said.

After a formal public information request from the Chronicle, MSU released data Friday comparing MSU’s student numbers so far this year compared with the equivalent period last year.

With 11 weeks to go until the fall semester starts, a date moved up two weeks to Aug. 17, MSU has received a total of 18,955 applications from new first-time students – an increase from 18,498 last year, reported Tracy Ellig, vice president for communications.

Applications from Montana students were down a tiny bit – 3,316 so far this year, just 22 fewer than last year. Out-of-state applications increased to 15,639, or up 479. Since many students apply to lots of campuses, application numbers are always bigger than the number who actually show up.

When it comes to students who have actually registered for classes, with 11 weeks to go, so far 11,628 students have registered, down just 87 from a similar time last year. Out-of-state student registrations are up to 5,041, or 312 more than last year. In-state student registrations are 6,587, down 399 from last year.

While 11,628 registrations may look far short of last year’s fall enrollment of 16,766, MSU added thousands of students last year between this time and the fall census, Ellig said. The ups and downs of student numbers, he wrote, “are especially hard to estimate this year because of COVID-related impacts on individuals and the economy.”

“It’s still early for us to tell,” Cruzado said, whether students will show up. “We’ve been trying to plan ahead.”

Many groups on campus have been working hard on different possible scenarios – such as offering more online classes, hybrid in-person and online classes – and on how to mitigate health risks.

To find enough classroom space for 16,766 students yet keep social distancing, she said, “We’re going to be very creative.” Some spaces not normally used as classrooms will be conscripted and classes could be scheduled earlier or later in the day than usual.

To keep faculty members safe, MSU is considering facemasks, headgear and transparent plexiglass barriers on podiums. Cleaning will be beefed up and more cleaning supplies made available, Ellig said.

No decisions have been made on whether to “strongly recommend” that students wear masks, or whether temperature screening or virus testing will be used.

No decisions have yet been made on the football season, decisions that will have to be coordinated with the NCAA and Big Sky Conference.

“We are trying to be very judicious in our budget planning,” Cruzado said.

Every department has been asked to prepare for a variety of budget scenarios, from a budget like last year’s to a 3%, 5% and 20% cut, she said. “We just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Cruzado acknowledged that there is “a lot of fear” among some Bozeman residents, concerned that the return of students will bring more coronavirus here. But she cautioned that people shouldn’t blame MSU’s 17,000 students, when thousands of tourists come to Bozeman and millions of visitors come to Yellowstone National Park.

The virus is perhaps the biggest challenge in Cruzado’s 10 years as president.

“It has been difficult,” she said. “It’s also been a blessing and opportunity for growth.

“At the beginning of this crisis, the enormity and speed of events was so gigantic – I’ve never surfed in my life, but I felt I was barely hanging onto a surfboard and on a tidal wave of history.”

Faculty, students, staff, parents and her executive team all stepped up. “There were days of 18-hour work. Non-stop. No weekends. No breaks.

“I think I have more gray hair than two months ago.”

Cruzado has saved emails since the pandemic started so future generations can look back and see how people confronted the emergency.

She also wrote a public email in late March about her worries for her son, Gerry, a hospital physician in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and her thanks to all the people in Montana and beyond working hard to protect everyone.

This may be a time of crisis, but Congress created land-grant universities in 1862 in the midst of the Civil War, the worst time in U.S. history, she said. “We survived once, and we will survive again.”

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.