Sheila Stearns

University of Montana President Sheila Stearns delivers an address to the campus in fall 2017 at the University Center. Stearns said that UM has stabilized and possibly increased first-year students this fall semester.

The project to set priorities at the University of Montana highlights a gap between UM President Sheila Stearns' stated commitment to transparency and the actual availability of information to the public.

Comments made by task force members also reveal the inclination of some UM officials and leaders — albeit not all — to shield information from the public.

Over the last few days, a UM task force made up of faculty, staff and students has taken votes on how to rank academic and administrative units at the university for future investment or disinvestment. UM produced reports that informed the votes, but the task force has made neither the reports nor the vote breakdowns available to the public.

Thursday at a news conference, President Stearns said those reports and vote counts will be available to anyone asking for the information. And one day earlier, Provost Beverly Edmond, who is leading the task force, also told the Missoulian her office would discuss the best way to provide the information.

Not everyone in Main Hall or on the task force was on board, though.

At the task force meeting Wednesday night, UM legal counsel Lucy France said if members of the public wanted to see the documents, they could file individual public information requests. That approach would subject reports easily accessible to students and faculty to an additional review process.

In an email Thursday, France responded to the Missoulian's question about why the public institution shouldn't make the information readily available to the wider public given its availability to people with UM IDs and passwords.

"It is not my place to make decisions for the task force. I was asked what was legal," France said in an email. "I answered that they could determine what and how they wanted to post information that was important to their process. Other information quite likely was public information and that we have a process for making public information requests and people could be directed through that process.

"I assured them that there was no legal requirement to make information instantaneously available."

Stearns said UM has probably never gone through such an extensive evaluation of both academic and administrative units. Initially, she said UM thought some information about the process should be proprietary, but it is figuring out a way to be transparent.

"Let us evolve. Let us evolve in the light of day, but let us evolve," Stearns said.

Some campus leaders have continued to push for openness. Also at the Wednesday meeting, task force member and faculty representative Paul Haber pressed for all materials to be posted online for public review.

“It’s a public institution. I think it’s the law actually. That’s called transparency,” Haber said at the meeting.

But the lack of action by some UM officials to make information available to the public at times predates the prioritization process:

  • UM used to produce a "budget book" that outlined detailed financial information by department. It included faculty salaries. UM's operating budgets are available on the website of the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, but they do not include the same level of campus detail. Individual salaries no longer are readily available.
  • This summer, the Missoulian requested a list of faculty on the roster for the last school year and this school year, along with salaries. The Missoulian made the request because UM would not share the faculty members who accepted buyout offers, citing privacy. UM did provide the faculty lists from last year and this year. However, before doing so, Communications Director Paula Short alerted faculty to the "broad nature of the request," despite UM having routinely made faculty and salary information public in the past. Short also warned faculty: "You may be contacted regarding this public records request. Decisions about responding to inquiries are at your sole discretion."
  • Faculty members have long raised concerns about a lack of transparency from Main Hall.
  • UM sends public "news releases," but it broadcasts much information that is of public interest only to the "campus community," which it considers faculty, staff and students with UM email addresses. The Missoulian has repeatedly requested access to those broadcasts. Main Hall makes those communications available only at its discretion.
  • When UM first announced early retirement buyouts for faculty, the Missoulian asked UM how much money it aimed to save. A campus spokesperson said the amount was not known. The Missoulian followed up with the Commissioner’s Office the same day, and a spokesperson provided an estimate, roughly $4 million.

The priorities task force offers other examples of a disinclination to transparency.

The task force voted on how to rank programs, but it only started to announce the outcomes of votes after the Montana Kaimin, the student newspaper, forced the issue at a public meeting. UM legal counsel France initially told a Kaimin editor the votes would not be made public, although she reversed course at the same meeting.

The vote breakdowns are not yet available, although the president, provost, and deputy commissioner for communications Kevin McRae in the Commissioner's Office have said they will be made public.

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When interim President Stearns took the helm at UM last December, she pledged the campus would be transparent to the public. Stearns has made herself available to media, and UM's human resources office and planning, budget and analysis office have responded to data requests from the Missoulian including complex ones in the current president's tenure and before.

  • UM has provided information about how general fund expenditures have been allocated by department.
  • UM has shared data about how enrollment has trended by program.
  • The Missoulian has received lists of faculty and compensation.

At the news conference Thursday, Stearns said she does consider taxpayers a part of the campus community, and she said internal and external communities play a role and have a voice at UM.

"We really need to live up to the value of transparency," Stearns said.

The president also said it's natural for different players to give "slightly divergent" responses about the priorities initiative, a process that is unrehearsed.

"Everyone is watching the production, the play, while you're still tripping on the dance steps," Stearns said.

UM is learning where to draw the line in the process between being open to the public and giving people on campus the freedom to candidly deliberate, she said. She also said the process will be repeated, and it also will be modified as UM continues to review its priorities.

Although UM is now planning to provide reports and vote breakdowns related to the priorities process, the campus doesn't always widely embrace transparency. At Wednesday night's meeting, task force member Scott Whittenburg was among those arguing against the release of information.

“It has no value for people outside of the university community,” said Whittenburg, vice president for research and creative scholarship.

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Higher Education Reporter

Reporter for the Missoulian