Faculty groups of seemingly all stripes are questioning the legitimacy of the controversial prioritization process used to rank University of Montana programs as interim President Sheila Stearns prepares to decide what to cut and what to punt to her successor during her final few weeks in office.
The process, conducted on an expedited timeline, prompted members of the administration and the campus task force in charge of prioritization to acknowledge its limitations at the outset. In recent days, however, task force members have doubted whether the effort has achieved even its most modest ambitions. Other critics are hinting at a legal challenge that, if successful, would invalidate the entire eight-month process.
The task force’s final report all but called the process a failure, stating that its design prevented members from locating “the most basic of inefficiencies or opportunities to restructure existing programs in ways that make our university more cost effective and dynamic.”
In the eyes of Paul Haber, task force member and University Faculty Association president, the findings, which placed 400-plus programs into ranked categories, are not reliable enough to prescribe lasting budget decisions.
“It’s not that it’s without value, but it’s very rough, and to make any kind of significant resource reallocation decisions should be a deliberative process that’s going to take time,” Haber says.
He argues that incoming President Seth Bodnar will need to initiate further public discussions once he takes office in January. And UFA, the faculty union, urged similar delay in a scathing Dec. 3 statement about the administration’s treatment of lecturers, who were given notice of termination for a second time, only to have it rescinded in a 10 p.m. Friday night email as the union was preparing a labor grievance. The statement referred to the interim status of top officials no fewer than eight times and called for Stearns to leave budget recommendations to Bodnar.
UM is already moving in that direction. Communications Director Paula Short says Stearns plans to present only recommendations to the Board of Regents in January. “The question is how specific her recommendations will be,” Short says.
But even those recommendations, to the extent they’re based on the task force’s work, could be nullified if professor Mehrdad Kia has his way. Kia staged a press conference Dec. 5 to publicize a lengthy records request submitted on his behalf by attorney Quentin Rhoades that challenges the task force’s compliance with open meetings laws.
The request targets unnoticed meetings, missing agendas and minutes and the anonymity of peer reviewers who scored campus programs. Unless UM can produce that information, Rhoades argued, the task force recommendations should be disregarded in final decision making. Rhoades suggested that he and Kia would pursue a judge’s injunction to halt implementation of decisions informed by program rankings.
UM Legal Counsel Lucy France says her initial review indicates that the meetings in question would not have been subject to state public notice laws, and that the university did its best to be transparent.
“They made this more public than they probably needed to,” she says.