by William Skink
Griz football is about to start, and so is the UM presidential schmooze circuit. Normally that wouldn’t be news, but with UM facing a projected budget shortfall of 5.7 million dollars, any expenditure is fair game for criticism.
When households have budget shortfalls, usually the thing to do is cut back spending. Going out to eat dinner is fun, but usually the first thing that gets put on the chopping block is recreational discretionary spending. Not so at UM, where a VIP brunch before this weekend’s game got a little media scrutiny. Here’s how Engstrom describes this “very common practice”:
“It’s very common practice among universities to be good hosts to visitors, to our alumni and supporters, to policymakers and the greater Missoula community,” Engstrom said. “The pregame events provide a vehicle for our friends and alums to engage with us and one another around the excitement of the game.”
Maybe it’s just me, but the thought of people going around “engaging” each other seems borderline salacious, especially when alcohol is involved.
Luckily, as taxpayers, we are only funding the food. The booze served up at these events is bought by the UM foundation. Here’s more from the link:
According to UM, the brunch menu includes pastries, quiches, bacon, yogurt, granola and berries, lox and more.
The UM Foundation pays for the beer, wine, mimosas and Bloody Marys. Kuhr said state money does not pay for alcohol, and Engstrom has cut back on events that serve alcohol on campus.
The amount of money the foundation spends on alcohol was not available Monday.
Wining and dining donors, politicians and other influential people is just how things work. Why should anyone expect these perks to just disappear because the institution footing the bill is in the hole nearly 6 million dollars? That would be like expecting administrators to take pay cuts instead of insulating themselves from financial reality and forcing the lower rung adjuncts and other expendables to take the hit. Cutting out the smoke salmon and scones? That is crazy talk.
The rationale for protecting events like this is that it’s a good investment to make. I’m not a PR person, so I’ll let a Board of Regents member explain why brunch is a strategic investment:
Fran Albrecht, a Board of Regents member, said she believes UM’s decision to spend state money on the events is both strategic and well-founded. Albrecht also is a longtime nonprofit leader based in Missoula.
“There is in fact a return on investment when you host something like this because it helps to further engage people, key donors, who want to continue to invest and support the University of Montana,” Albrecht said.
Sure, if you want to engage rich people, it’s handy to have delicious food and plenty of booze. There are plenty of politicians who are also swayed by this strategy. But some are not, and when the University goes hat in hand to the next legislature to beg for more money, a conservative politician, like Rep. Greg Hertz from Polson, might remember this schmoozy, boozy brunch:
Rep. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, views the brunch as a “junket.” Hertz sees value in the event, but he believes money for those functions should come from a different source, such as the alumni association.
“They need to spend some time making sure all their expenses are appropriate, and I just don’t think this is an appropriate way to use taxpayer money,” Hertz said.
I suspect most non-invited readers of this article agree with Hertz. Dropping 2,700 bucks for brunch may not seem like much to well-paid administrators like Engstrom, who earn over $340,000 in salary and other unspecified compensation packages, but it’s a lot to most people in Montana. Using myself as an example, it would take me six weeks of take home pay to raise $2,700 dollars.
A University budget is immense and I’m sure it’s a challenging behemoth to run. Hell, our entire economic system is a debt-crazed house cards ready to fall, so why not keep the party going?