Speaking out

Group of UM professors gives Main Hall an "F" on dealing with budget crisis



On Nov. 13, Mehrdad Kia's voice rang through the University Center ballroom as he railed against the "atmosphere of fear" hanging over faculty and staff on the University of Montana campus. The six professors flanking Kia on an informal panel had just finished addressing what they consider to be an ongoing assault on the humanities by the UM administration—an assault spurred by recent budget cuts and declining enrollment. Panel member Doug Coffin, a state legislator and associate professor of molecular genetics, encouraged faculty, administrators and the community to "pull together" to support the institution. Others claimed their programs have already suffered noticeably in the midst of financial uncertainty, and further budget reductions could spell disaster.

"We need to send a message to the administration," Kia said. "The knife has come to the bone."

Just one day before, the Missoulian ran an editorial drafted by Kia and 21 co-signers chastising the administration for its approach to the ongoing budget crisis. Last spring, the administration announced an $8.6 million across-the-board budget cut. Numerous sections of various courses were temporarily zeroed out in the midst of registration, meaning students could not enroll in them until funding was guaranteed. Faculty members rallied outside Main Hall in late April to protest the cuts and call on administrators to reduce their own salaries to make up some of the difference.

Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Led by professor Mehrdad Kia, a group of University of Montana faculty has vocally criticized the administration’s handling of the current budget crisis, from its current “hiring chill” to hiring an outside firm for its rebranding effort.

Expenses still outpaced revenues this fall, prompting another $2.9 million budget reduction. Vice President of Administration and Finance Mike Reid says the details of those cuts are still being worked out by the campus community. In addition, UM is projecting a further $3 million in cuts this coming spring. Kia and his colleagues fear that with all that trimming, faculty and students are bound to suffer.

"The administration's position is that we're able to handle the $2.9-plus million this fall without really going into the academic side of things," says Michael Mayer, a history professor and faculty senator for the humanities. "The real question is what happens in the spring? What happens when you add $3 million more onto this? You may be able to cut this or that, streamline something in the administration ... maybe they can manage this, and they certainly seem confident in their ability to manage this this fall. But spring, there's a question there."

Critics like Kia and Mayer insist the administration has excluded the broader faculty from conversations on how best to navigate this budgetary uncertainty. During the Nov. 13 meeting, Kia suggested that the university should be issuing public updates about where the budget is going and who is making those decisions. Reid says Main Hall is consulting with the proper governmental associations, including the Faculty Senate, in "trying to right-size this campus and make sure that we're providing the quality of education that the Montana students and the community deserve."

Kia isn't convinced the discussion is as open as UM is letting on.

"In this case, the strategy has been to label us, to isolate us," Kia says of himself and the outspoken group of detractors. "That is a very unfortunate part of this. I would love to sit down and talk to these folks. I consider them my friends, my colleagues, and they probably care about this university as much as we do."

Budgetary shortfalls at UM, as with the rest of the Montana University System, were anticipated as far back as fall 2009. UM received one-third of a nearly $18 million federal stimulus boost to the state's higher education system following the economic downturn. The Montana Board of Regents acknowledged a budget gap was inevitable and requested that UM develop a plan to deal with a projected shortfall of $3.6 million in the 2012-13 budget. However, that plan, as outlined by then-President George Dennison during a meeting with the Faculty Senate in September 2009, partly accounted for additional revenue from increasing enrollment. Enrollment has instead dropped roughly 1,100 students since its last peak in 2011.

According to Reid, the current shortfalls can also be linked to past growth. When enrollment projections looked promising, UM budgeted its expenses accordingly. Now, after dips in enrollment, those expenses are outpacing actual revenues.

UM is already looking to cancel dozens of course sections in the spring semester. Those cancellations hinge primarily on lack of student demand, a line of thinking classics professor Hayden Ausland takes serious issue with. Hypothetically, Ausland says, if too few students sign up for an upper-division Greek language course in his department, the course would be cut. But Ausland contends that such a decision would consequently reduce interest and enrollment in lower-division Greek, eventually leading to cuts there as well. The same would happen to upper-division courses if the scenario were reversed.

"The success of the advanced teaching is based on the people coming along from the introductory," Ausland says. "So saying, 'We'll just close a little bit of the introductory,' that's guaranteeing that then you'll have a better argument for eliminating the senior course down the road."

But Kia and his group are particularly vexed by the administration's decision this year to enact what it calls a "hiring chill," during which positions vacated by retirement or departure are not necessarily filled but reevaluated on a case-by-case basis. Most of those positions are being temporarily left open. The move was made to reduce expenses and allow some instructional duties to be picked up by adjunct professors or teaching assistants, though Reid says most of the actual reductions have been to non-instructional positions.

Mayer argues that the chill actually prevents departments from properly shaping their curriculum in the long-term. Retirements occur randomly, Mayer says, and the loss of one or two senior history professors in the midst of a hiring chill could make it impossible to offer courses in, say, European history. Mayer likens it to retrenchment—the technical term for cutting tenured faculty through layoffs—without the "hurt feelings."

"We have to really think about what we're doing and we have to think about maintaining the basic function of a liberal arts university," Mayer says. "You can't just randomly—and I don't mean they're just taking axes—but by waiting for retirements and not filling [them] there's a random aspect to this that is not going to shape universities and departments."

Kia isn't even convinced the chill is saving much money, at least not among tenured faculty. A white paper furnished to the Independent by Kia claims the total savings from unfilled faculty vacancies at the Colleges of Arts and Sciences is just $695,665 in the 2012-13 budget. It's a conservative estimate, Kia says, based on the salaries of 12 existing vacancies his group could confirm. The group offers the figure as a comparison to the salaries earned by administrators. The Board of Regents approved a string of administrative salary increases in September, bumping President Royce Engstrom's salary from $289,466 to $296,229—still one of the lowest rates among university presidents nationwide, but considerably more than the roughly $191,000 Dennison made in 2007. Provost Perry Brown's salary increased to $196,570, while Reid's bumped from $169,000 to $173,053. Combined, those three salaries total $665,852.

"The faculty loses its positions, loses its courses, and we have to remain very quiet and polite," Kia says. "But the moment we mention a single cut in the administration, they attack and they rage. It's incredible. That's a little bit of a double-standard. With $150,000 for one administrative position, we can fund nearly 20 courses."

Kia also feels the administration has ignored requests regarding the number of new administrative positions created in the past few years. Reid told the Indy there are currently 53.8 full-time-equivalent positions at the administrative level, adding that the total is actually down from 56.6 FTEs in 2007.

Salary increases aside, Kia believes the administration has been less than smart about its spending in recent years. He points to UM's decision to hire an outside consulting firm, Mind Over Media, to head a rebranding campaign in fall 2011. The move was intended to help improve enrollment, and UM officially released its new logo on April 30—one day before the faculty rally protesting budget cuts.

UM paid Mind Over Media $85,000 before terminating the contract this spring and shifting the marketing operation in-house. Kia and others wonder why the project wasn't kept on campus in the first place.

"This campaign to rebrand and rename the university, they hired some firm from the East Coast, right? Cost a lot of money," says Michel Valentin, professor of French textuality. "What about using the business school here, as a project? That would have been cheaper certainly."

Critics of the UM administration may feel marginalized, but their concern isn't for their own emotions, nor, they say, does it stem from some personal vendetta. Rather, they fear that budget cuts, lost courses and unfilled vacancies will lead to the gradual erosion of certain programs, the campus' core mission and even UM's reputation overall. That only serves to discourage prospective students, Kia says, further perpetuating the downward trend in enrollment.

"We are criticizing the direction, we are criticizing the investment strategies," Kia says. "These are very concrete issues. It has nothing to do with individuals, whether they're good people or bad people. We have high regard and respect for all of them. But these are substantial issues of policy, and we have the right to answers."

This article was updated Nov. 27 to correct a quote from Doug Coffin. At the Nov. 13 rally, the professor referred to for-profit education companies, not UM administrators, as "corporatists and bureaucrats." The Indy regrets the error.


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