A coalition of students, faculty and community members are denouncing budget cuts at the University of Montana and condemning them as "a devastating assault" on curriculum and staffing.

In a letter to UM president Royce Engstrom, 47 signers described this academic year as "one of the bleakest" at the institution, and they list the ways the budget shortfalls are affecting students.

The administration pegged the shortfall at $5.7 million in the most recent budget and planning committee meeting.

Brendan Work is among those who signed the letter, which was provided to the Missoulian. Work teaches Arabic at the three public high schools in Missoula, and said he fears the deficit at UM will affect the future education of his students, some 75 in all.

"When I talk to my students about their opportunities after graduation, I want to be able to say that the university can foster them. But how do I put this delicately? It seems more questionable than before," Work said.

The letter, similar to correspondence members of the group have sent the president in past years, specifically calls out the College of Humanities and Sciences, the largest college on campus, for a "financial and curricular meltdown."

In particular, it lambasts plans to cut courses taught by adjuncts and lecturers.

"Such an unappreciative and disrespectful attitude on the part of the administration, and, in particular, the CHS (College of Humanities and Sciences) dean, toward our dedicated and hardworking colleagues is disheartening to say the least," the letter said.

In response, Dean Chris Comer disputed some information the coalition provided and its characterization of his approach. He agreed the budget has posed challenges at UM, especially because the campus has faced three difficult financial years in a row, but he said the institution has taken a conscientious approach to cuts.

In the last couple years, he said, the college addressed budget shortfalls by trimming in ways that aren't directly evident to outsiders, including non-instructional items.

For instance, he said, the college went from having two associate deans to just one associate dean, and it cut other funds that were flexible.

"This is the first year there's really no way to protect the curriculum completely, so we are going to see more sections trimmed," Comer said. 

He also said the college's approach to courses isn't anything but standard academic practice. It's not going to close a section of 35 students and open one with five, for instance.

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Tyler Brewer, one of the students who signed the letter, said he added his name because one of his trusted advisers sent him the letter, and he shares its concerns. Brewer, a first-year student, said one of his professors couldn't hold a summer course he'd planned because of inadequate enrollment.

Brewer is getting a minor in Arabic, and he wants to be certain some of the smaller programs aren't hurt as UM makes cuts. This summer, he said, a foreign exchange trip to the Arab world is not available, as it has been in the past.

"The Arabic program is a really small program, but it's something really special to the U of M because it's one of the hardest languages to learn in the United States," Brewer said.

Lewis Schneller, a community member, said he signed the letter because he fears the university is becoming top heavy, and it's shorting academics on the other end.

Schneller, who was involved in the effort to save the University Golf Course, also said he sees "excessive salaries" at UM, and he fears the budget woes on campus will trickle into the community.

"All of this is going to have a drastic effect on our good ol' town," Schneller said.

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The budget problems are due largely to a dip in enrollment. This coming fall, though, the enrollment projection is looking better, Comer said. 

"That doesn't mean we're going to bounce way up, but it does mean the recent declines will probably stop, if not even reverse. That would be a great thing. We all have our fingers crossed," Comer said.

Already, he sees evidence UM has been judicious in its cuts.

For example, the actual number of students enrolling in summer courses is up, he said, even though "there's slightly fewer sections." He sees the uptick in summer enrollment as evidence the university may be able to serve just as many students.

"And that's really fascinating," Comer said of the bump in headcount in summer classes. "What that means is the trimming has been fairly reasonable."

In the last couple of weeks, he said, the final budget picture has improved, and the college has been able to add some courses back. Last year, the college had $1 million for its allocation of summer, winter and online courses, compared to some $600,000 or $700,000 this upcoming year.

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The letter, signed by mostly students, a handful of faculty, and some community members, lists several effects on the student body:

  • Some students have been forced to enroll in language classes at Montana State University and other universities because of inadequate summer courses. Dean Comer said he did not know if students were enrolling at MSU. He said the language program at one point considered not offering any modern languages in the summer, but it did not have to eliminate the summer courses once the budget picture became clearer.
  • An increasing number of newly retired faculty are not replaced, and, for example, the Department of History has "gaping holes" as a result, the letter said. "The same story is replicated in many departments in the College of Humanities and Sciences," it said.
  • In response, Comer said the history department has 3.75 openings out of some 15 faculty. It may not be replacing positions as quickly as some people would like to see, but it is filling the positions, he said. He also said the fact those jobs still exist is evidence the administration supports the college: "Many times, when there's financial strains on colleges, the main administration might take those lines (positions) away. They have not ever done that to us. ... That's a vote of confidence in the academic programs of the college."
  • The letter also said classes with high enrollment "have been targeted for elimination." Comer said no classes are targeted; rather, different units approach cuts in different ways. He recommended programs trim summer or winter courses and keep spring and fall classes as strong as possible.

The letter criticized UM's approach to budget cuts, but it didn't make many demands or propose changes in strategy, other than a call on the president to make an "urgent intervention." Faculty signers include outspoken critics of the administration Michel Valentin and Mehrdad Kia, as well as other instructors.

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