The University of Montana saw a record number of students enroll last year, but the school recently announced a steep drop in enrollment numbers for 2012, leading to speculation about whether students are avoiding the Missoula campus after a year of criticism over the university's handling of sexual assaults involving undergraduates.
UM is reporting 726 fewer students for the fall semester than in 2011. In contrast, the student body at Montana State University continues to grow, with an increase of 507 students there. The shift for both schools lowered UM's enrollment advantage over MSU of more than 1,500 students to just 283.
Multiple sexual assault cases have led critics to brand Missoula as the "Rape Capital of America." The website Jezebel reported in May that there had been "at least 80 reported rapes in Missoula over the last three years, with 11 of the sexual assaults reported over the last 18 months involving UM students." The University of Montana, the City of Missoula and Missoula County are all being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice over the handling of the reported assaults.
Members of the UM Grizzlies football team have been at the center of a string of sexual assault allegations. Two players -- running back Beau Donaldson and starting quarterback Jordan Johnson -- are facing rape charges. Donaldson pleaded guilty in September. Johnson maintains his innocence. Several other members of the UM football team were accused of gang rape-style sexual assaults, but local police did not press charges following an investigation.
UM students have been more vocal recently about putting the issue in the spotlight. One student detailed her own experiences with sexual assault in adeeply personal editorial that ran in the school newspaper in March.
Peggy Kuhr, UM interim vice president for integrated communications, acknowledged to the Missoulian that last year's highly publicized reports of sexual assaults on campus may have played some role in this year's enrollment drop.
"Yes, last year was a difficult year for us,” Kuhr told the paper. "We know people had questions about sexual assaults and the investigations, and we’re working hard to get the word out about how we’re addressing those issues."
UM received $300,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice to fund programs designed to curb violence against women and to hire a violence intervention director. The school is now requiring sexual assault awareness and prevention training for all students -- although local television affiliate KPAX recently reported students are not big fans of the program. UM and the Missoula police also are offering a self-defense course for women.