Chopping block

UM faculty, staff let go as budget shortfall looms


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On the morning of Friday, April 12, University of Montana President Royce Engstrom addressed a lecture hall packed with College of Arts and Sciences faculty and explained why the university is facing budget cuts. Engstrom showed graphs and pie charts, some of which depicted UM's shrinking enrollment. He pointed out that after the Department of Justice opened its investigation of UM last year, about 200 non-resident students withdrew. Other charts delineated Montana State University's budget surplus and UM's projected $17 million shortfall.

CAS faculty listened quietly as Engstrom explained the university's situation, before he moved to a graphic that divided UM's spending into general categories, including "Research," "Institutional support" and "Student services." The largest slice of the pie represented nearly 50 percent of the spending and was titled "Instruction."

"That's our biggest expenditure. That's what pays your salaries," he said as faculty members began to whisper and raise their hands. "That's the biggest piece."

Since late March, UM's budget woes have been a topic of public conversation. The shortfall is blamed on two consecutive years of declining undergraduate enrollment, the source of the majority of UM's tuition dollars. So far, the administration has been careful to frame cuts as possibilities—hypothetical preparations for worst-case scenarios. But on the ground at the university, staff and non-tenured, short-term contract faculty—called adjuncts—are experiencing something very different. They're already losing work.

Linda Parker has taught ballet and modern dance in the university's College of Visual and Performing Arts for 15 years. She teaches up to six classes a semester, sometimes instructing as many as 150 students a week. Recently, though, she was told her load for next fall would be cut to one class.

Parker's colleague, Bob Athearn, has been working as a musical accompanist in the dance program since 1983, playing piano and percussion. He was told that for the first time in 30 years he will not have a job in UM's dance studios next fall. Athearn, who is 76 and planned to retire at 80, will be replaced with recorded music.

Missoula Independent news
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Bob Athearn began working at the University of Montana in 1983. His position has been cut for next year.

Neither Athearn nor Parker take the cuts personally. They both understand that the higher-ups in their department were forced to make difficult decisions, and that as staff and adjunct faculty their workloads are not guaranteed. But they also feel the university's practice of hiring and disposing of employees, many of whom have been there for years, is bad policy.

"There's got to be some way to treat people appropriately," Parker says. "Give them credit where credit is due."

Archeology doctoral candidate Lisa Smith agrees that the system creates a nerve-racking uncertainty for non-tenured members of the UM community, but she points out there are other impacts. Smith, who hopes to defend her dissertation next year, has worked hard at UM to gain experience in the three areas generally perceived to make a doctorate more competitive in the job market: publishing papers, writing grants and teaching. Earlier this year, she was offered an adjunct position teaching a 300-level archeology class in the fall, her first such offer. But the day she returned to campus from spring break, Smith was told her class had been cut—not only taking away a source of funding for next year, but erasing a line on her CV before it was inked.

Since hearing the news, Smith's department chair has told her that it's possible she will be able to teach the class, but nothing is certain. "The thing is, as of now, I don't know what my funding is going to be for next year. If the class falls through and other funding opportunities fall through, I'm probably going to go on academic leave," she says. If that happens, she says she will have to find a job doing something else.

For Smith and for dozens of adjunct faculty members at UM (like a teacher in the College of Arts and Sciences who said she only found out she had been cut when her students couldn't register for her classes), the problem is more complicated than lost work. The issue for educators both tenured and in danger of being cut is that budget talks diminish their roles to a simple category of expenditure called "Instruction"—a category that, from some faculty's perspectives, has been deemed bloated and expendable by the administration.

Judy Blunt, director of UM's Creative Writing Program, feels that the decision to cut from "Instruction," in the long run, will depreciate the experience of UM students. Her program, which in February was named a Program of National Distinction, has been forced to cut one adjunct faculty member. She says other cuts will lead to larger class sizes and fewer course offerings.

"We are doing a great job, but it just isn't the model that they prefer to look at when they're balancing the budget," she says. "So we're being cut. The people who are being hurt are the adjunct faculty, the students themselves who may be compromised in trying to get the classes they need to graduate with the people they want to study with, and to a certain degree, the morale of the faculty itself."

At the April 12 meeting, after Engstrom explained UM's expenditures, faculty members began to ask the president questions. One professor wondered how UM hoped to recruit more students if it offered fewer and larger classes, while another asked if the athletics department was facing cuts.

Another professor didn't ask a question so much as give a speech, which ended when he approached Engstrom and shoved a pair of shoes in his face. He told the president to "try walking."



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