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University of Montana President Seth Bodnar encouraged the deans to “be bold” with solutions to the school's budget woes at a recent Faculty Senate meeting. UM is bracing for announcements of cuts expected to affect faculty and programs.

TOMMY MARTINO, Missoulian

University of Montana faculty leaders are bracing for news next week of proposed reductions expected to hit tenured colleagues and academic programs.

"Faculty, your colleagues, our colleagues, are going to lose their jobs," said Faculty Senate Chair Mary-Ann Bowman, urging faculty to scrutinize the coming proposal.

Already, history professor Mike Mayer called one idea he's heard for the College of Humanities and Sciences an "act of academic vandalism."

Thursday at a meeting of the Faculty Senate, interim Provost Paul Kirgis said UM President Seth Bodnar aims to cut $5 million from the campus budget — which has a $10 million problem — using three separate strategies.

Kirgis said the president's proposal likely will involve "curtailment," or reductions in tenured faculty, discontinuance of degrees, and academic reorganization.

The interim provost also said UM's personnel budget has room for cuts. While enrollment has slid nearly 30 percent since 2010, he said instruction is down just 10 percent, and tenured and tenure-track jobs have dropped only 5 percent.

"There's room here," Kirgis said.

Efforts to set academic program priorities have been underway at UM since last school year in order to "right size" the campus budget.

At the meeting, some faculty acknowledged UM must finally make decisive and adequate cuts once and for all. However, at least a couple of senators also said the administration is putting too much energy into reductions and insufficiently addressing the root of the budget problem, a decrease in enrollment.

The University Planning Committee has been evaluating programs and data in advance of the president's recommendations. Chair Bowman said the work will reshape UM, and its importance is impossible to overstate.

She said the outcome eventually will be dressed in "positive spin," but she reminded the group that people's jobs are on the line and called for "all eyes on the recommendations. "

"The process is going to move us towards a loss of faculty members," Bowman said.

***

The chair also encouraged faculty members to track the recently started hiring process for the new enrollment and communications vice president. She said the late start on the search means faculty will not be on contract when the hiring nears completion, yet the position is critical for UM, and enrollment indicators are down for the fall.

"Without enrollment issues, we would likely not be discussing colleagues losing their jobs," Bowman said.

Professor Diana Lurie echoed the concern and said she wanted to see a commitment to bringing in more students. UM had seen a slight uptick in freshman enrollment last fall although it anticipates another overall drop in total enrollment given another large graduating class.

"It's very hard for me to reconcile all that's happening with the UPC (University Planning Committee) and the cutting with the fact that the administration seems to be dragging their feet on getting a new director for enrollment," Senator Lurie said.

" ... I think that's a problem. There's been a lot of focus on cutting programs, potentially cutting faculty, and there doesn't seem to be the same commitment, at least to the public or to us, on the other side of the equation."

But Kirgis, who is also the dean of the Alexander Blewett III School of Law, said the administration is greatly concerned about enrollment and has plans to move the dial. Currently, he said UM believes it can have an impact by retaining more of its freshman class instead of losing 20 percent before sophomore year begins.

"If we could move that 20 percent even by 2 or 3 percentage points, it would make an enormous difference," Kirgis said.

***

In an email, UM communications director Paula Short confirmed that "leading indicators around enrollment and the data" are "concerning."

She said applications for fall 2018 are lower by 761 this year compared to last year and the number of admitted students is down 865, although UM believes the applications it is receiving will result in a higher yield, or number of actual students.

Short also said the number of applications for residence halls is down 363 compared to a year ago.

However, the communications director also said UM was late in sending financial aid letters, and this means more students may still enroll.

"My hope is that once students receive their financial aid awards, they will be able to finalize their decisions, and we'll see an increase in our numbers, especially applications for on-campus housing," Short said in an email.

"In the meantime, the recruiters are out on the road and we are working on yield strategies, including direct phone calls and letters to admitted students, timely processing of transfer student degree plans, outreach to students who have initiated housing applications but not yet finalized; and digital marketing (social media and on our website).

"We have our final 'UM Days' visit to campus tomorrow, which is always an important opportunity to provide a campus experience for prospective students."

Short also said the administration is being thorough in its approach to a new enrollment and communications vice president. Although the former vice president for enrollment received notice of nonrenewal in late January, President Bodnar didn't announce a restructure that redefined the job until March 19.

"And since then, we have been working on the details of role descriptions and organizational structure," Short said in an email.

"We've taken the time to engage with the affected units, gather input on the implementation as well as the key attributes we will seek in the new VP. We also worked with (Human Resources) to develop the job posting to ensure it provided an accurate description of the role of this new position and encouraged a diverse slate of candidates to apply.

" ... While we are eager to complete the reorganization of Enrollment and Student Affairs, we want to be thorough and deliberate in our process to ensure we have a successful search that concludes with an excellent selection."

***

At the meeting, senators quizzed Kirgis on a timeline for savings and how UM would discuss cuts, especially in light of possible retrenchment — and loss of tenured faculty — and national media coverage.

Kirgis said he could not discuss a timeline for savings, partly because if UM embarks on retrenchment, the process takes time. Also, he said he believes UM has three or four years to balance its budget, and state higher education officials are part of the negotiation.

As for talking to the public about the cuts, the interim provost said "messaging is critical," and he said eventually, UM will be able to reinvest instead of cut.

"It has to be a message of innovation and growth and regeneration. That's the way we have to tell this story," Kirgis said.

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.