UM buyouts a 'win-win-win?' Not so fast.

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Any buyouts offered to University of Montana faculty and staff will likely be limited to those whose academic programs or departments are targeted for downsizing, the Montana University System’s human resources director says.

Such an approach could put senior and junior faculty at odds, and may strain a process that faculty union leaders hoped could offer an alternative to mass layoffs as UM prepares to cut its budget by millions over the next two years.

“It gets more sensitive the more specific the buyout becomes,” says University Faculty Association spokesperson Lee Banville. “How do you not turn this into, ‘Senior faculty retire now or junior faculty lose their jobs,’ which could be a very destructive conversation to have.”

UM President Sheila Stearns and Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian began discussing buyout options just weeks after Stearns took over as interim president in December, as the Indy first reported. The proposal gained momentum last week when university system officials made a deal with the governor’s office and lawmakers to earmark $2 million from 9-1-1 dispatch funds to cover “faculty termination costs” at UM.

MUS spokesperson Kevin McRae described the proposal, which cleared the Senate, as a potential “win-win-win,” the Missoulian reported.

It could just as easily become a lose-lose.

McRae tells the Indy that for early retirement incentives to be effective, they must align closely with the university’s downsizing goals, which Stearns has signaled will target specific academic offerings and services. Otherwise, he says, “you lose the whole point of what this is about.”
PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
That means only faculty in certain academic programs and support staff in certain sectors would receive buyout offers.

“That’s indeed a question for the university and I don’t think they’ve gotten there yet, but to me, I think it has to be department by department,” McRae says.

McRae is part of a group of MUS and UM administrators who are hammering out legal and logistical questions related to the proposal, dubbed the Voluntary Early Retirement Incentive Program, or VERIP. (A separate UM working group administered an anonymous survey to faculty and staff last month.) He says the commissioner’s office and Stearns’ staff are working as “one big team” on the project. UM Communications Director Paula Short says the team’s discussions are still in "very early stages."

Administrators have not yet approached the University Faculty Association about details of a proposal. But a highly “strategic” incentive package is a far cry from the typical, broad-based approach that faculty union officials assumed would take place, in which buyouts are offered to any faculty or staff members who meet age or employment criteria. Contacted last week, UFA President Paul Haber told the Indy his sense is that offers would not target specific areas on campus.

If they did, “We would certainly look at it very hard,” Haber wrote in an email.
A timeline announced by Stearns this spring calls for program “prioritization” over the summer, with cuts to be recommended in September. McRae says no buyout offers would be made until that analysis is complete.

Even if the buyout proposal proves unworkable, or finds few takers, UM would still be able to use the $2 million legislative earmark to help pay costs associated with layoffs. State employees are entitled to a sick leave payout upon termination, which McRae says can cost more than $25,000 for a veteran faculty member.

The state allocation could pay costs associated with eliminating approximately 80 positions, but McRae says the $2 million figure was reached without a particular layoff target in mind. And, in fact, the amount may not be enough.

“It will help substantially. Whether it will cover it all, we don’t know,” McRae says.
Montana universities are poised to absorb a $4.7 million cut for each of the next two years. They will also not receive millions in inflationary adjustments. Legislators, however, have been more willing to ante up state funds that they know will be used to reduce costs at UM, McRae says.

“They expect to see action,” he says. “Legislators see this will go toward action.”

But on Wednesday, even that was uncertain. The bill containing the legislative earmark, Senate Bill 294, appeared to be taken hostage during negotiations between Gov. Bullock and Republicans over infrastructure funding and was not yet scheduled for a House vote in the Legislature’s waning moments.

If the bill dies, the university system—or its tuition-paying students—will be covering the full cost of layoffs.

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