Hours after releasing a 20-page blueprint for changes to the University of Montana’s academic portfolio April 17, President Seth Bodnar faced members of the faculty senate.
“You could say this plan is not fully baked,” Bodnar cautioned a crowded campus recital hall. “Exactly.”
The plan, presented as a “strategy for distinction,” is actually the most comprehensive set of changes proposed for UM’s academic portfolio since enrollment began dropping eight years ago. It aims to “set a course that builds on our strengths,” Bodnar wrote in an attached summary. Given UM’s $10 million anticipated budget shortfall by 2020, the plan’s mechanism for building on academic strengths is mostly a matter of cuts. The proposal trims 50 faculty positions over the next few years while consolidating academic infrastructure. Unlike prior rounds of budget cuts, however, the latest effort targets departments that have become financially inefficient due to declining numbers of students.
In other words, the strategy calls for the “hard decisions” — Bodnar’s term — that have tended to tie UM officials and faculty in knots.
The proposed cuts are deep. Former President Royce Engstrom eliminated nearly 200 positions from the budget in 2016, but most were already vacant or non-teaching jobs, and funding for many was simply redirected from alternative sources. Voluntary buyouts claimed as many as 40 faculty in 2017, and next fall a dozen non-tenured lecturers won’t have their contracts renewed.
Under Bodnar’s proposal, developed over the spring semester by a University Planning Committee, various humanities departments would lose a combined 16.5 full-time-equivalent faculty. The schools of arts and media arts would be combined and lose six full-time positions. The sciences would lose eight positions. In all cases, the targets will be met first through attrition, with layoffs to follow as necessary.
Faculty senators who spoke out on Tuesday were most anxious about the larger structural shake-ups, such as a recommendation that the School of Journalism merge with Communications Studies and the English department’s rhetoric program. Bodnar said he plans to seek authorization for programmatic changes from the state Board of Regents next month, leaving the faculty at-large with what interim Provost Paul Kirgis acknowledged as an “extraordinarily compressed timeline” to review the proposal.
Communication Studies professor Steve Schwarze told Bodnar he considers the open-endedness of how to enact the changes empowering. But history professor Michael Mayer, referencing Bodnar’s baking metaphor, worried that “half-baked” elements of the proposal could have unforeseen consequences for the programs they affect.
“It seems to me, before we jump, we ought to look,” Mayer said.
The academic vision put forth by UM’s planning committee calls for a reimagined liberal arts core curriculum, around which the university will focus resources into six “communities of excellence,” or interdisciplinary academic clusters. They include: artistic expression and communication, science and technology, business and entrepreneurship, environment and sustainability, health and human development, and justice, policy and public service.
“This is not a marketing pitch,” Bodnar said. “This is a way for us to think about the real strength of UM.”
Public listening sessions between campus faculty, staff and students with Bodnar and the planning committee are scheduled for April 20, 24 and 26. A copy of the draft recommendations can be found at www.umt.edu/president.