The University Faculty Association filed a grievance Thursday alleging the University of Montana violated its own policy when it notified lecturers — some who have taught full time for many years — that they wouldn't have jobs come spring.
This month, UM sent letters to some lecturers stating their employment would terminate at the end of the fall semester. But the union said the letters fail to honor the right of lecturers to a reappointment annually.
"The UFA is unaware of any instance when the U of M has issued lecturers a semester contract," said the grievance.
The union also alleges UM is sending "mixed messages to lecturers" by sending written notices that it won't reappoint them but giving some a verbal guarantee of employment.
The grievance summarized the complaint as such: "The U of M has violated its contract with the University Faculty Association, its policy, its past practice, and even its own notices of intent not to reappoint, necessitating this grievance on behalf of all university lecturers."
Paul Haber, association president, announced the decision to file the grievance on behalf of roughly 40 lecturers at a union meeting Thursday afternoon to members who largely expressed distrust in the administration, confusion about unexpected changes to their contracts or proposed contracts, and concern for the students they mentor.
"The students, you know, are going to take the hit. And they're not going to keep coming back for more," said George Price, a lecturer at UM for 19 years.
Instructors also expressed uncertainty about their personal lives.
"Obviously, one of the hardest things about getting a letter is not knowing whether you're going to be able to pay your bills in January," said Mark Hanson, a lecturer.
Others noted the lack of sound data and information coming from Main Hall, an ongoing theme at UM. Alex Bulmahn, a grievance officer and lecturer, said the union needs to hear directly from lecturers about their experiences and contracts.
"Obviously, we're not getting information out of Main Hall," Bulmahn said.
In a letter to UM interim President Sheila Stearns, the union is asking the university to issue lecturers who are union members full contracts for the 2017-18 school year.
In an email, UM communications director Paula Short said the president received the complaint and is reviewing it.
"There is a timeline by which she will respond to the UFA. We respect the grievance process and will prepare and provide our response accordingly," Short said.
The union noted the president has a deadline of 10 working days to meet with Haber and then another 10 to resolve the matter. Arbitration is possible if the parties don't settle the dispute in these 20 days.
UM has experienced a decline in enrollment of some 24 percent since 2010 and ensuing budget trouble, and it is trying to cut spending on faculty salaries.
Last school year, the university counted 552 tenured or tenure-track faculty, according to UM. It has 41 fewer tenured or tenure-track faculty this school year from buyouts and other departures, and the administration plans to continue to reduce spending on instructors.
UM policy notes lecturers are "subject to reappointment annually" and are subject to reappointment at UM's discretion, "with one semester's advance notice of intent to not reappoint."
At the meeting, Haber said the union understands the difficult financial situation at UM and earlier attempted to negotiate a solution, but the administration refused to do so.
"This is not how we hoped to start such a critical semester at the University of Montana, but we are left with no other option," Haber said in a prepared statement.
He said lecturers are critical faculty members who teach many of the general education courses and ones with highest enrollment, and he said the reappointment on an annual cycle protects both the teachers and the university.
"(Lecturers) have usually demonstrated themselves to be effective and caring teachers, and therefore, the university created a special policy," Haber said in the statement, noting the annual contracts for lecturers. " ... This gives the faculty member time to find another institution and the university time to ensure another faculty member can teach their course."
He later said that if UM pulls the plug on lecturers at the end of fall, it will create a mess for programs. He said UM will either have to hire adjuncts at the last minute — adjuncts receive course-by-course assignments — or it will have to ask tenure-track faculty to teach — including ones who might have grant commitments or haven't ever taught the specific class.
"That sounds like a train wreck to me," Haber said.
At the meeting, a couple of longtime lecturers questioned the types of contracts UM had given them or discussed with them.
Price said he has taught at UM for 19 years, and of those, he's taught 18 years full time. A full-time load has been teaching three courses in the fall and three courses in the spring, he said, but this year, he received an offer to teach two courses each semester — at half the salary instead of two-thirds of the pay.
"That just seemed astounding to me that they would expect me to accept the math on that," said Price, who has taught in Native American studies, history and African-American studies.
He was considering retiring in May anyway, but he said his heart goes out to young lecturers who have families with children in school and may need to relocate.
"There seems to be no feeling on the part of the administration regarding that," Price said.
Several other participants questioned the competence of administrators and the fairness of decisions coming from Main Hall. One said UM continues to hire and replace administrators who earn six figures; she considered it "beyond the pale" that the administration would announce an interim replacement for the outgoing vice president of finance the same week it sent lecturers notice.
Haber said union leaders are committed to ensuring that the administration follow the collective bargaining agreement, and are seeking a quick resolution to the disagreement.
"We will be enforcing the CBA like hawks," he said.
The union president also said he didn't know if Main Hall could let the vice president of finance position stay open, but he also urged union members to acknowledge that UM has a true challenge with its revenues not matching expenses.
"The problem is bigger than that," Haber said of a couple of six-figure salaries. "So we can't just whine, you know, about that. We also have to stand up and say, 'We get that.'"