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Higher Ed Commissioner Clay Christian meets with UM faculty, acknowledges 'realities'

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To access the large lecture hall in the Gallagher Business Building on the University of Montana campus, one must walk along either side of an atrium that cuts through the building's main lobby. On Dec. 8, a small group of faculty and student demonstrators posted up along the walkway nearest to the building entrance, so that anyone attending the afternoon's faculty senate meeting had to either walk past the sign-toters or risk being seen taking the long way around to avoid them. One student's placard read #DeniseJuneau4President. French professor Michel Valentin's sign was attached to a little wooden stake. It read, "Halte a l'educastration," with a pair of bloody scissors drawn beneath.

The occasion wasn't the senate meeting itself, but rather the presentation to be delivered by Commissioner of Higher Education Clay Christian, who was about to speak with faculty for the first time after asking UM President Royce Engstrom to resign earlier this month. The demonstrators were glad to see Engstrom ousted, community activist Lewis Schneller explained, but they remained worried that Christian and the interim leadership he has installed will cut classes, programs and jobs.

Christian, running late from another appointment, managed to avoid the pre-meeting protest. The outgoing president, on the other hand, walked straight through the demonstrators, sporting a Griz beanie and a tight smile. He was the first speaker on the agenda.

"I just came by to say thank you," Engstrom told the faculty senators. He received a framed "Certificate of Appreciation" and a round of applause before returning to a seat in the back.

Christian and University Faculty Association President Paul Haber arrived 15 minutes later, just in time for their scheduled presentations. Engstrom had already left. A nervous Haber read a prepared statement urging "trust-building activities" between faculty and the administration. Christian, apologizing for not having "a lot of great things to report," said the university's enrollment-based budget woes may soon be compounded by belt tightening at the upcoming Montana Legislature—a cold answer to Engstrom's plea for more state funding during his final Board of Regents meeting last month.

Facing "some realities of the budget" was a refrain during Christian's 67-minute question-and-answer session, but his realities were decidedly vague, ill described beyond the fact that they are realities.

"The reality of it is there's going to continue to be decisions made every day," Christian said. "We'll either find a format that allows us to provide input into that, or we let them get made."

The commissioner's "we" was rhetorically empathetic. Christian, with his bachelor's degree and $309,207 salary, is not a professor, though UM's problems certainly have become his own. As he fielded questions, Christian twisted his wedding ring, picked at a screw in the tabletop and appeared to twiddle his thumbs. He had spent the whole day on campus, meeting with Engstrom's cabinet in the morning and with faculty representatives in the afternoon, all to "facilitate the transition" until interim president Sheila Stearns takes over Jan. 1. "It's not my campus to run," he said on his way out.

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The original print version of this article was headlined "UM's reality show"

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