Lately, the bosses of Montana's universities have been direct.

One message: the University of Montana needs to reduce spending on personnel.

Another: UM and other schools need to be strategic about where money goes, and campuses need to set clear priorities.

Also: Don't count on a rosy financial picture for higher education in the future. At a recent meeting of the Montana Board of Regents, Commissioner Clayton Christian again stressed that priorities are important, dollars need to follow students, and campuses need to be practical with their budgets.

"It is incredibly important that we look at where revenue and enrollments are trending in the future," Christian said.

Indeed, UM is in the process of ranking its programs, presumably for beefing up or cutting. It's also offering $2 million in buyouts to reduce its spending on faculty.

So far, nearly 100 offers have gone out. 

Yet earlier this month, UM also announced its top administrator who had been asked to step down in December, would stay on board to teach at the university with a $119,000 contract in a department that, at least in the most recent assessment in 2015, was not identified as one poised for growth.

Tenure is the reason.

Faculty members earn tenure. Administrators, though, negotiate it.

If an administrator is asked to step down from a management post but holds tenure in an academic unit, that person has the legal right to a faculty contract, regardless of the need in the department or financial realities on campus.

Administrators such as deans, presidents and provosts often come from the ranks of faculty and receive contracts that retain their tenure. At UM, 21 administrators also have full or probationary tenure.

Kevin McRae, deputy for communications in the Commissioner's Office, said contract faculty and administrators of the university system don't have the same legal rights as most other workers, and tenure offers similar security.

"It provides the same kind of employment protections that other workers have under Montana's wrongful discharge act," McRae said.

Tenure has become a political hot button in some other states, but it remains part of a long tradition in academe.

Fran Albrecht, chair of the Montana Board of Regents, said some other universities are looking at alternatives to tenure, but campuses still need to continue to attract high-quality faculty and protect academic freedom. At the same time, she said higher education officials need to continue to evaluate the model to make sure it's still in the best interest of the public and public institutions.

"It's definitely worthy of continuing to scrutinize to ensure it's meeting the needs of what was intended," Albrecht said.

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Faculty members who earn tenure enter into a compact with the institution, said Lee Banville, spokesman for the University Faculty Association. The instructors demonstrate they can teach, conduct research, publish and serve the community; in turn, the campus pledges to support their work for the long term.

Tenure also has two sides, he said.

"If you don't get tenure, you're required to leave your institution," said Banville, associate professor in the School of Journalism.

But faculty members who earn it can work without the pressures of outside influences, he said. It allows academics to do research, report findings that go against the grain, and do so without worrying about their popularity — or the unpopularity of their conclusions.

"It creates some independence for the university and for the teachers from the political winds of the day," Banville said.

Constitutional scholar and former UM law professor Rob Natelson earned tenure in Missoula. On campus, he produced much research, and in the classroom, he challenged the positions his students took, regardless of their political stance.

But in Montana, he was politically active in conservative causes that most of his colleagues "fervently disagreed with." He favored government reform and generally opposed tax increases, and his activism off campus rocked the boat.

"I have no doubt in my mind — no doubt — that if I had not had tenure, that the law school administrators and faculty would have found some way to get rid of me," Natelson said.

Eventually, the institution highlighted his scholarship in its research magazine, but early on, UM didn't embrace his work, and colleagues never liked his political activity, he said. Tenure protected not only his job, but the independence of his research and its conclusions — whether outcomes were liberal or conservative. 

"You don't want fear of retaliation skewing your research findings," Natelson said.

In 2010, Natelson retired from UM and moved to Colorado, and he's a senior fellow at the free market Independence Institute there. However, because he had tenure, he was able to stay in Missoula as long as he wanted, to raise his children and continue his commitment to his political causes.

To protect academic freedom, tenure is essential, said William Tierney, professor at the University of Southern California, in an email. Tierney is a higher education policy researcher whose publications include ones that address tenure.

"Without it, we are all at risk," said Tierney, Wilbur-Kieffer Professor of Higher Education and co-director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at USC. "If we want to ensure that faculty can speak truth to power, then the mechanism to enable it, to foster it, to encourage it, is tenure."

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But Tierney also said tenure for administrators comes through their contracts, either because they ask for it or the hiring board offers it. Boards don't have to offer administrators such as presidents tenure, he said, but they do have to honor the agreements once signed.

"I don't see why presidents get all these perks, but they do," Tierney said. "They don't have to give a president a big buyout or tenure, but it is the norm."

It's also less of a perk than the ones sometimes given in the private sector, said John DeBoer, former head of the Faculty Senate at UM. A campus administrator may retain the right to a teaching position, but CEOs can get larger golden parachutes without any responsibilities to the organization.

"You were terrible. Here's $20 million. Don't call," said DeBoer, associate professor in the School of Theatre and Dance.

In an analysis of enormous payouts earlier this year, CNN Money reported that former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina collected $21.4 million in an exit package "when the once-mighty computer maker was foundering."

DeBoer said he knows some faculty on campus think it's a bad idea for administrators to cycle back into teaching jobs as "sometimes expensive faculty." But he wants strong faculty members to continue to seek leadership roles, and he doesn't want their tenure to be on the line if they fail.

"It's important that when faculty rise up to a point of administration, that their tenure go with them," DeBoer said. "I would hate to see really great faculty who could make a real impact as administrators opting out simply because of the tenure risk."

An excellent researcher and instructor in the classroom just might not make a great manager, but he said the person is still valuable to the institution.

"If they're still known to be a good teacher, frankly, let them teach," DeBoer said.

Sen. Dick Barrett said that sometimes, an administrator who came out of a campus department, such as a provost, will continue to teach a class in the same department. The Missoula Democrat sees the protection as different for administrators who return to be faculty in departments where they formerly taught — as opposed to administrators who earned tenure elsewhere.

"When somebody is hired de novo and you grant them tenure, that's imposed on the department externally," Barrett said.

However, the economist said without knowing how often administrators return to teach instead of retiring or taking another job, it's hard to economically assess the provision.

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In this particular case, former UM President Royce Engstrom came to Missoula from the University of South Dakota, and he took a position as provost of UM with tenure through the Chemistry Department. His contract for president included tenure, and he will teach in the chemistry department in the fall.

Regents Chair Albrecht said chemistry isn't going to go away anytime soon, and the students will learn from a subject matter expert.

"We are honoring the strength and skill set, the scholarly skill set, of this individual and matching it with the right need," Albrecht said.

Albrecht also compared the academic system with private industry. She said faculty members undergo rigorous review and work a long time to obtain tenure, and assessment continues.

"I am grateful that the process of becoming tenured takes years," she said. "In the private sector, it takes six months of probation."

In theory, faculty members with tenure don't get to coast. However, Natelson said in reality, institutions don't always want to undertake the due process required to get rid of a protected instructor who is "asleep at the switch" because they're asking for a "nasty fight."

"Often, it happens that universities don't want to do what's necessary to get rid of dead wood," Natelson said.

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For the Montana University System, the offer of tenure is a necessary recruitment tool for administrators who demonstrated they deserved tenure as faculty members at other reputable and credible institutions, said McRae, spokesman for the Commissioner's Office.

Montana already ranks low when it comes to executive compensation, he said. In a Chronicle of Higher Education survey from 2010 through 2015 of more than 250 public universities and systems, Montana offered its presidents $301,000, or 73 percent of the median salary.

The ranking puts 159 schools ahead of Montana flagships in presidential salaries, McRae said. But he estimated some 50 of those campuses aren't even doctoral institutions. Montana does offer deferred compensation, but so do other states, he said, so the state isn't competitive in pay.

"If we cannot also be competitive on the tenure question, and be willing to grant tenure to individuals who hold tenure at other institutions and have proven worthy of tenure, then we're 0 for 2 in terms of being able to realistically negotiate," McRae said.

Currently, recruitment is underway for a president at UM, but McRae said tenure is not a given in the contract; the contract depends on the person's qualifications.

Banville said the fact that administrators can receive tenure underscores the importance of hiring well for those positions.

"It's controversial because I think people look at it, and they see it's a job for life," Banville said. "And that's not completely accurate, but I think it's something that in particular, the leaders of the university have to recognize is a concern the public has.

"And so what we need to do is make sure that when we do bestow a real honor, which is what tenure is, it needs to be done seriously.

"It is when you teach. And it should be just as serious when you hire an administrator."

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