True Fact: The undergraduate population of the University of Montana at Missoula has decreased by more than 40% over the past 8 years. It is, by far, the biggest drop in undergraduate enrollment experienced by a public flagship institution in the United States. Appropriately, on September 26th a Chronicle of Higher Education headline asked, “What’s Going On?” at Missoula.
University Life has spent the past two months investigating this question, and the answer is clear:
Montana is home to black bears and grizzlies, both of which inhabit the woods on the edge of the Missoula campus. According to Campus Police Chief Seth “Deer Tick” Crick, “global warming is diminishing the availability of the bears’ traditional food supply, so they’ve started to replace that supply with our students. Undergraduates who walk back alone to their dorms from the cafeteria right after dinner are particularly vulnerable, especially in the winter months when it gets dark early. As the bears see it, these kids are just calorie-laden snacks. And let’s face it, most college students these days are pretty self-absorbed. By the time they look up from their smartphones to identify the source of the heavy breathing behind them, it’s too late. Often, the only thing we find left on the sidewalk is a smartphone, and occasionally a stray sneaker. It’s a damn shame, but there’s only so much we can do. We encourage students to walk in groups at night, and never to wear honey-scented cologne, perfume, or body spray.”
It’s the rare Missoula student who hasn’t lost a friend or classmate to a bear. Says sophomore Nate Cleghorn: “My roommate Skip was a terrific guy. At home football games he would dress up as Monte, the grizzly mascot of our school. It’s really ironic that he was carried off by an actual bear. Or maybe it’s really ‘paradoxical’; I always get those two terms confused. I have the same problem with ‘affect’ and ‘effect’. Regardless, I miss Skip a lot.”
As an anonymous staff member in the University Admissions office put it, “it’s hard to recruit students when they know there’s a good chance they’ll be eaten before they graduate.”
Addendum: This installment of University Life is dedicated to Tyler Krill, a beloved UL reporter who doggedly pursued this story. Tyler was a relentless investigator, and the last entry in his notebook — found on a nature trail near the campus — was, “I think I’ll check out those rustling sounds coming from the bushes next to that cave opening.”
With Tyler, it was always about getting the story.