Faculty and staff with the Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at the University of Montana have experienced success on many fronts in recent months – including "unprecedented growth."
A major launched just this school year has drawn twice the number of students projected – 41 instead of 10 to 20.
Enrollment in a course called "Social and Political Perspectives on Women, Men and Sexuality" grew from at least 35 students to 96 students in a year.
And in December, UM President Royce Engstrom commended the program as thriving in a memo shared with faculty, according to program director Elizabeth Hubble.
So she and four faculty members with the program are questioning the decision to cut an estimated $10,000 from a total budget worth some $64,000.
The WGSS instructors see it as a "devastating" hit to students but drop in the bucket compared to recent raises for administrators or the $14 million Washington-Grizzly Champions Center being built with all private money, according to a letter signed by Hubble and four others.
"Rather than supporting the growth of our program and acknowledging our service, the UM administration has chosen to cut our budget and staffing," Hubble, Anya Jabour, Teresa Sobieszczyk, Ione Crummy and Clary Loisel wrote in the letter to the editor.
The four-page letter also shares the sentiment among employees in at least one building on campus: "The morale in the halls of the Liberal Arts Building is lower than we could have ever imagined it being."
UM has been in the midst of a $12 million budget crunch related to enrollment decline. Last month, the school announced it would lay off 27 people and reduce 192 positions by the end of June to make up $7.5 million.
According to the letter, the president did not respond to a Feb. 4 request to meet to discuss the cut, so the group addressed its concerns to the media. On Thursday, Hubble said Main Hall requested a meeting after the Kaimin, the student newspaper, posted the letter online.
UM vice president for integrated communications Peggy Kuhr said budget decisions are complex, and the money going to the Champions Center is money private donors want spent that way. She also discussed a suggestion in the letter that the administration find savings by taking furloughs or 1 percent to 2 percent pay cuts.
Kuhr said she could not speak specifically to whether furloughs have been on the table, but she could share the strategy behind the recent cuts. UM is reallocating and reconfiguring its operations, she said, not making one-time budget cuts.
"The effort really has been to look at how are we making the budget align with enrollment and the expected revenue," Kuhr said.
In Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies, the number of declared majors is going up, according to the letter.
"We expect to see sustained growth in coming years," the letter states. "At least one of our current majors transferred from (Montana State University in Bozeman) because of the major, and two MSU students have contacted us this year about doing the same."
Yet the person those students talk with about enrolling is the administrative associate whose hours are slated to be cut from 20 hours a week with benefits to 10 hours a week without benefits.
"The position is already unmanageable at 20 hours/week," the letter states. "We have been asked to recraft the job description to reflect the work an employee could accomplish in 10 hours/week.
"It has been suggested that she not send out weekly emails to our students informing them of scholarship opportunities and other events, or that she should not advise students who drop by our office.
"One of the reasons that our program attracts students is because of these parts of the job description. We are being asked to REDUCE or ELIMINATE services to our students at a time when we are experiencing unprecedented growth and requests for those services."
The letter states WGSS already operates on a shoestring budget, partly because it has no tenure-track faculty budget lines of its own and relies on other departments "to cross-list courses" based on content. The UM website lists 17 faculty and staff from various departments as affiliated with the program, including the five who signed the letter.
The program has been cut in the past, too. In 2013, the Provost's Office reduced support for the program from $25,000 to $17,500 "in the midst of the sexual assault crisis."
Hubble said the program teaches classes related to sexual assault, she was one of the authors of the online prevention tutorial, and she co-chairs the University Council on Student Assault.
"We are doing this work, the work that we felt was very, very important, and there just seemed to be a really strong disconnect between that and our academic program, which is what I feel about this most recent cut as well," Hubble said in an interview.
Hubble said she and other faculty understand clearly that the Champions Center is being built with private money, but they find it incongruous to see UM lay off people who earn $8, $9 or $10 an hour at the same time big money is going to athletics and administrators' raises.
"A lot of us just don't understand," Hubble said.
Last month, the Board of Regents approved raises for top university officials, including as much as $6,093 for Engstrom, who is donating his raise to a scholarship fund, and $6,063 for Commissioner Clay Christian. Regent Martha Sheehy of Billing was the only audible vote against the raises, and she pointed out at the time that both university presidents were also on track to get $500,000 in longevity bonuses.
In the WGSS letter, signers state the Dean's Office of the College of Humanities and Sciences helped alleviate the cut in 2013 and helped create a half-time director and instructor position. However, it describes the current cut as directly at odds with the president's statements about the growth of the program.
"The WGSS Program is stronger than it ever has been thanks to our administrative associate and our students, and those are the people being hurt by this decision," the letter stated.
Kuhr said the president is open to discussing concerns of faculty, staff and students, and he will meet with representatives of the program in early March. However, she could not say whether he would make any reversals to budget decisions.
Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program