The interim and incoming presidents of the University of Montana greeted the Faculty Senate on Thursday, but both had departed to other meetings by the time senators pushed back on proposed cuts to the library and sabbaticals.
At the meeting, President Sheila Stearns said she's at the helm of UM for the final stretch this semester, and much budget work remains to be done. Revenue shortfalls at the state means UM's ongoing budget trouble may worsen.
"We are waiting, as you are, to learn the dimension of the challenge ahead of us for both (2018), but especially (2019)," Stearns said.
She also introduced Seth Bodnar and his wife, pediatrician and Missoula native Chelsea Elander. General Electric executive Bodnar is set to become UM's next president in January 2018 pending approval by the Montana Board of Regents.
The faculty gave the couple a round of applause, and Elander was emotional in brief remarks to the group. She said she was honored at the chance to be part of the campus, sitting in a room in which she believes her parents had sat.
"Thank you for that opportunity, and we will work very, very hard for all of you and for the community," Elander said.
Bodnar shared a conversation he'd had with one of their children to illustrate the way he viewed the role of the president. Elander has four parents in Montana, and one, John Sommers-Flanagan, is a faculty member at UM.
Bodnar said Margaret, 7, contemplated her dad's new job. First, he said, she cried because the family had to move, but then she wondered aloud about Bodnar's new relationship to her grandpa, "Grandpa Pancake" Sommers-Flanagan.
"So, you're Pancake's boss."
"No, Margaret. That's not how it works."
Bodnar told faculty it might sound phony, but he told her how he viewed it: "Actually, my job is to make sure that Grandpa Pancake can be very successful in his job (and that) he has the resources to be successful in his role.
"In fact, in some ways, I work for him."
Margaret interpreted that to mean Bodnar would be sure her grandpa had "paper, scissors and glue," and Bodnar agreed.
"I really want to be your partner in this. I know we have tough decisions," Bodnar told the senators.
But he said he knows the people who selected him had heated discussions about the decision, and he's honored and thankful that people have since come together to support the outcome and move forward together.
"That's an incredible testament to this community, and I'm very grateful for that," Bodnar said.
Later on, members of faculty talked about the actual "paper, scissors and glue," the real resources on the chopping block.
Earlier this week, the provost announced UM would fund just a fraction of the sabbaticals it had approved last year, just five or seven instead of 36.
Professor Doug Coffin said he doesn't believe that number meets the standard at UM, and since travel budgets have been cut, sabbaticals offer about the only option faculty have for professional development. He also said UM has paid about the same amount that sabbaticals cost to bring in consultants "to feed us Kool-Aid." The provost earlier said last year's sabbaticals cost $87,000.
The faculty union contract notes the administration is committed to supporting "as many sabbatical assignments as possible within the limits of available funding" to encourage professional achievement. Coffin questioned whether the cut would stand up to a grievance given the wide deviation it represents from precedence.
"This is an affront to our faculty. This is looking at us and saying, 'You don't matter,'" Coffin said.
Faculty Chair Mary-Ann Bowman said the executive committee of the senate would take up the matter. And faculty union president Paul Haber said he would have preferred to have had a conversation with Main Hall about such an important matter in advance.
"I'll give you my take on it. We were not consulted. I don't think this body (the Faculty Senate) was consulted," Haber said.
In the future, he said he would like to not only have discussions in advance, he also would like to start having conversations that address the budget in a holistic way instead of piecemeal.
"It would help at some point if we got a comprehensive view of the way that we're looking at reductions so that we could respond in a comprehensive way," Haber said.
In a brief presentation, Associate Provost Nathan Lindsay said Provost Beverly Edmond, who was out of town, wanted to let faculty know she received much feedback against proposed cuts to the library, a possible $600,000 hit to collections.
One participant said students in his department were "very alarmed" to hear journals would get cut, wondering what the point of attending a university was. Lindsay said the provost wanted to relay that she heard their concern.
"She wanted me to convey that she is working with the library on trying to find a solution for this and particularly looking for strategies for finding other funds within the library's portfolio," Lindsay said. "And she is hopeful that there will be minimal impact."
However, in response to a question, he also said he did not yet know if the solution would mean other areas of the library would be cut instead: "I think she's working out the details."