Hundreds of University of Montana programs had their futures drafted Dec. 12 by outgoing president Sheila Stearns, but their specific fates remain uncertain as long as another mystery lingers: How much cost-cutting does UM need to do?

“Beats me, man,” says an exasperated Paul Haber, the University Faculty Association president who sat on the program prioritization task force that culminated in Stearns’ recommendations and has negotiated labor issues with administrators in recent months.

Stearns is promising only “broad-strokes” clarity sometime in January, just as she steps down. In the meantime, she offers a bit of assurance: Her administration does not intend to trigger retrenchment, the lengthy process by which UM could terminate faculty.

As recently as late October, interim Provost Beverly Edmond told the Missoulian that the administration hadn’t ruled out the retrenchment option. Stearns says she views retrenchment as a last resort budget-balancing option, and that the university’s financial outlook simply isn’t yet clear enough for her to determine whether retrenchment is “absolutely essential.”

Taking retrenchment off the table is the latest tea leaf suggesting that the university’s budget deficit isn’t as urgent as many feared after Stearns launched a breakneck prioritization exercise and suggested publicly that 2018-2019 would see steep cuts to bring staffing in line with a reduced student body.

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“The sense that I’ve got, but it’s just vague, is that we look to be in pretty good shape going into 2019,” Haber says.

Haber expresses frustration that the financial picture was so murky as prioritization participants sought to make recommendations that could be incorporated into budget decisions. Usually, a campus committee discusses the next year’s budget in monthly meetings, but the group has met only twice since interim Vice President for Administration and Finance Rosi Keller took over in September. Next year’s budget was not discussed in detail at those meetings, according to minutes provided to the Indy.

Stearns blames the financial fuzziness on the state budget, which didn’t crystallize until after a special session last month. She says that delay forced her to rethink what she could accomplish this year, and potentially puts more difficult decisions on incoming President Seth Bodnar’s desk.

“I was also not going to be foolhardy and pronounce decisions when I did not have what I believed was the full picture the university needed to make those decisions,” Stearns says.

Several rounds of faculty buyouts and staff severance offers since summer will likely offset some portion of the budget hole. Nearly 100 employees signed up for severance offers this month, on top of the dozen or so senior faculty who had already accepted buyouts. The Missoulian reports that Stearns indicated the high staff interest in severance offers may reduce the number of lecturers UM will cut loose.

Stearns wrote in her prioritization report that “we must reduce costs through more strategic deployment of faculty” in several fields, including education, world languages and the humanities. But it may be up to Bodnar to decide what that statement really means.

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