Students and faculty at the University of Montana left their classrooms on Wednesday to converge on Main Hall, where they rallied outside the offices of administrators to voice concerns surrounding cuts in the 2014 budget.
In a rally that saw colorful rhetoric, picket signs and Revolutionary War-style drummers, faculty members accused administrators of planning cuts from the bottom up as they attempt to cover a budget gap once feared to be as deep as $16 million.
“It’s time to stop cutting at the bottom of the ladder,” said Michel Valentin, a tenured professor of French who wore a red, white and blue bow tie. “It’s time to start cutting at the top. It’s a question of justice, fairness and survival.”
The $16 million figure has been widely used across campus as a benchmark for what administrators and deans have described as a worst-case scenario for the 2014 budget.
Last year’s enrollment fell by roughly 700 students, and administrators feared they might lose 700 more at the start of the 2013-14 academic year.
But officials on Wednesday offered new figures based on new enrollment projections. Interim Provost Perry Brown said school officials now believe fall enrollment may only drop by 450 students.
As a result, he said, a budget gap once estimated at $16 million has been reduced to just $8 million.
“We’re all concerned about the enrollment issues, about financial issues at the universities,” Brown said. “We’re working through the processes established at the university to come to a final adopted budget, which we haven’t done yet.”
Until the budget is adopted in final form, Brown said, not a single class has been canceled and not a single professor has been let go.
But some say it’s a matter of semantics, as some classes have been zeroed out, meaning students can’t sign up for them, and some adjunct faculty members have been told they may not be needed next year.
G.G. Weix, a professor of anthropology, said 67 sessions have been temporarily zeroed out across 15 fields of study. That, she said, amounts to roughly 1,300 seats not open to students.
Such figures have led many to believe that cuts are taking place in academics, not within administration. Others say the proposed cuts disproportionately target the humanities and foreign languages.
Students joined Wednesday’s picketing with signs reading “Trim pork, cut sport” and “If cuts go through, hello MSU.” Many worried about their own academic pursuits and how course cancellations would affect them.
“I struggle to understand that if UM’s motto is a ‘university for the global century,’ then why foreign languages and the humanities seem to be bearing an indiscriminate proportion of the cuts,” said Eamon Ormseth, a history major and member of the student Senate.
Ormseth’s concerns were echoed by others at the rally, including Evelina Badery, who believes her job teaching Italian – and her classes – could be lost in the 2014 budget.
Badery stood surrounded by students holding signs that read “Keep Italian” and “I want to learn.” While two years of foreign language is required for many majors, continued studies in Italian and Arabic, along with other languages, could be eliminated under some budget proposals.
“I don’t know when or how I’m going to graduate if they cut this class,” said student Erika Tibbetts, who’s studying Italian to fulfill her foreign language requirements. “If they’re not offering the continuing class in Italian, I can’t fill my 200-level requirement as an English student.”
“If we’re supposed to be a global university, why are we cutting so many languages?” added Italian student Colleen Farrell. “There are some students who don’t want to take Spanish or German.”
Before the rally kicked off, Valentin handed out copies of positions listed under the Office of the Provost. He suggested cuts could be made to a number of administrative positions, including the Office of Academic Enrichment and the Office of Student Success, among others.
Like many of his peers, Valentin believes the proposed cuts are being made from the bottom up. Top administrators, he believes, aren’t feeling the pinch.
“The cuts are necessary, but some of the cuts could be done higher up, where there’s questionable spending,” Valentin said. “Cuts should be made around the round table and with the involvement of students, faculty, staff and the administration.”
Brown, who listened in on the rally, said he understands the concerns voiced by many at the event. But he disagreed with some facts presented by speakers.
Among them, he said, nearly 70 percent of planned cuts will take place in non-academic areas, including administration, finance and student affairs. But even so, he said, academic instruction will be included in the cuts. He said it’s unavoidable when $8 million needs to be trimmed.
“Instruction is one of the biggest parts of the budget, and if you have to trim money, you have to get it from where the money is,” Brown said. “We’re looking at trying to minimize the direct effects upon instruction.”
Administrators have said cuts to academic offerings will be carefully considered. They’re looking to trim in areas where student demand is the lowest, Brown said.
“We’re projecting to be down some more students this fall,” he said. “If you take 700 last fall, and maybe 450 this fall, that’s nearly 1,150 students. They’re not here to sit in classes, so yes, there will probably be fewer sections offered.”