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William Hess, a graduate student under David Gilcrest, was among at least eight students who protested the termination of lecturers with a sit-in at the provost's office Monday. "It makes no sense for me to come back to this institution that would consider making an adjunct of the director of my master's program," Hess said.

In a flipflop a union leader described as a "fiasco," the provost's office at the University of Montana rescinded its termination notices to lecturers Friday, just hours after it issued them.

UM communications director Paula Short said President Sheila Stearns plans to call every single lecturer to explain the situation.

"We regret the understandable stress this process has caused," Short said in a statement. "President Stearns will be reaching out individually to each of the lecturers who received the notice and rescission to arrange one-on-one meetings."

The reversal Friday mirrors the turnabout Main Hall made earlier in the year when it first tried to cut lecturers, who are faculty members with annual contracts.

In August, the administration changed course after the University Faculty Association alleged contract violations in the attempted terminations.

Monday, faculty union president Paul Haber said the provost's office rescinded its notice this time because it learned the union was going to file an unfair labor practice complaint. The union planned to allege a different breach of the collective bargaining agreement.

"These people do not deserve to be treated this way," Haber said of the lecturers. "They have now been let go twice this year by administration."

UM had emailed notices of nonrenewal to roughly 30 lecturers in an ongoing effort to address budget challenges.

In her statement, communications director Short shared the reason UM finds itself in the same predicament it did a few months ago.

"We thought the issues that prompted the earlier grievance were resolved, and we wanted to proceed as expeditiously as possible to give lecturers as much notice as we could," Short said.

"However, a couple of technical questions were raised that merited another look, so we took a step back and rescinded the notices to review these new concerns."

Short did not address whether legal counsel reviews correspondence related to union negotiations. But she provided the single-sentence email sent to lecturers late Friday at the direction of Provost Beverly Edmond.

"Good evening, I have been instructed to inform you that the notice of non-reappointment sent to you earlier today has been rescinded until further notice."

***

In a statement, the faculty union also called into question the competence of interim leadership at UM and requested further changes be deferred to "the new administration of President (Seth) Bodnar."

Currently, the top two leaders of UM are serving in interim capacities. Bodnar is slated to take the reins in the middle of January from interim President Stearns. Provost Edmond, who issued the termination notices, is also an interim official.

"The interim administration's inability to deal with lecturers in a way that respects their contributions to the University of Montana and the collective bargaining agreement has further undermined any confidence we have in their ability to make strategic decisions," read the union statement.

Haber said the union would prefer to collaborate with the administration, but its members don't believe that can happen anymore. Main Hall officials have assured the union they will work together, he said, yet "the interim administration has repeatedly failed to honor that understanding." 

"I am really unhappy that it's come to this turn of events where I've given up essentially on the ability to meaningfully collaborate," Haber said.

Short, though, noted UM has been clear that it's spending too much of its budget on personnel, and in notifying lecturers, it aims to adhere to the union contract and reduce temporary faculty first. UM officials have said cuts to tenured and tenure-track faculty are not off the table.

"The university has been very forthright regarding its financial situation and the fact that we’re spending close to 90 percent of the budget on personnel," Short said.

"UM’s collective bargaining agreement with faculty — of which lecturers are a part — requires us to look first at temporary faculty when planning reductions. We’ve been trying to do that.

"This is far more complex than a 'yes' or 'no' decision. The intent has been constant: This university cannot continue to encumber its present-level financial obligation with a significant number of temporary faculty."

Short did not comment on whether the administration attempted to consult with union leadership before issuing another blanket notification to lecturers.

In an email, incoming President Bodnar said Stearns remains president and responsible for UM.

"With regard to the lecturers, I am aware that President Stearns and the team are working through some difficult decisions right now," Bodnar said.

"However, while I'm working hard to learn about the university and prepare for the transition, Sheila remains the president and is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the university. I look forward to officially joining the team next month and working closely with our shared governance leaders and the campus community to chart the course ahead."

Although he hasn't started yet, Bodnar launched the search for a new provost earlier this semester, noting the chief academic officer will be a key partner in his administration. Bodnar is an executive at General Electric and steps into the presidency from outside academia, albeit with prestigious academic awards.

"As soon as possible after my selection, we launched a provost search with an aggressive timeline, and we're working to bring on our new, non-interim provost as quickly as we can. Provost Edmond is going to stay on board and help through the transition," Bodnar said.

The search committee aims to bring provost finalists to campus in March 2018 and have one seated by June or July.

***

Although lecturers don't have tenure, many have worked at UM for years, some more than a decade. Many have become fixtures on campus and some are heads of programs, such as David Gilcrest, director of literature and the environment in the English Department.

William Hess, a graduate student under Gilcrest, was among at least eight students who protested the termination of lecturers with a sit-in at the provost's office Monday. Hess earlier said he may leave UM if it offers Gilcrest a position as an adjunct instead of a full lecturer contract.

"It makes no sense for me to come back to this institution that would consider making an adjunct of the director of my master's program," Hess said earlier. 

In the faculty union's statement, the association noted "lecturers" are one of five types of non-tenurable appointments negotiated in the collective bargaining agreement and in a UM policy reaffirmed this spring. The notice to lecturers noted UM "will be discontinuing use of full-year contracts for lecturers," but the union questioned the wholesale discontinuance.

"Clearly, one interim administrator is not authorized to make this declaration on behalf of the institution," said the faculty union letter. The letter also states that the notice is "out of accordance with good faith bargaining practice" and that the administration's approach demonstrates a lack of understanding of lecturers' contributions.

"For more than 15 years, the contract and the policy have served both students and the people of Montana by offering critical courses to students in a sustainable and affordable way," notes the statement. "The contract and policy were unilaterally disregarded by an interim leadership that we feel fundamentally misunderstands the role these faculty play within their departments and for the students."

***

In a phone call, Haber said he was "flabbergasted" the union was facing yet another botched effort by Main Hall to cut lecturers.

Haber has been among those on campus calling for shared governance, and he reiterated Monday the union's commitment to helping UM through its budget challenges. He said the union will fight attempts to discharge its members that violate the union contract, but the union does want to collaborate with the administration.

"They're ultimately responsible, and they ultimately have the power to make those management decisions, but it would behoove them to meaningfully collaborate with all the shared governance groups, including but not only the faculty union," Haber said. " ... And I don't feel that that has occurred. In the important decisions that have been made, there has not been that kind of prior meaningful consultation."

At the end of a discussion, Haber said the union and administration could stand together behind a decision — or respectfully agree to disagree: "But you can't do either of those if you don't have meaningful consultations."

In its statement, the faculty union described three instances in which the administration hadn't worked with the union in advance of a decision, including the couple of rounds of notification to lecturers and a decision to "radically shrink" sabbaticals. Haber, though, said he's hopeful UM will usher in a new atmosphere of cooperation come January.

"I have no reason to doubt that Seth Bodnar is sincere when he says that meaningful collaboration will be a hallmark of his leadership. And I'm down for that," Haber said.

UM's budget challenges won't disappear overnight, though, and Bodnar will face many of the same financial problems the current administration is trying to fix. Stearns has said UM needs to decrease the amount of its budget going to personnel from close to 90 percent by even a couple of percentage points in order to put money to other needs such as the library.

So it's possible lecturers again will receive termination notices about next school year.

The collective bargaining agreement notes nontenurable faculty on a one-year appointment have "no expectation of reappointment" and contracts "automatically expire (without notice) at the end of the contract term unless renewed prior to expiration." 

But UM's procedures for academic appointments protect longer-term lecturers: “After the third consecutive year of service, lecturers ... shall have the right to one semester’s notice of the intention to terminate the relationship.”

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.