052117  Robert Stubblefield-tm.jpg (copy)

Robert Stubblefield has taught at University of Montana since 2002, and the creative writing and composition teacher has worked in the English Department full time since 2004. "Lecturers are an important part of the program," Stubblefield said. "We're not just teaching when we have high enrollment to fill in."

William Hess decided to pursue a master's degree at the University of Montana specifically because he could study under David Gilcrest, in the Department of English.

"I chose it because of the faculty," Hess said of UM. "Your master's degree is only as good as the people you study under."

Last spring, Hess flew to Missoula to visit and was "deeply impressed" with the work of Gilcrest, director of literature and the environment.

Hess enrolled, moved here from Syracuse, New York, and his girlfriend joined him.

Friday, though, UM issued notices that it would terminate the contracts of an estimated 30 lecturers, contract faculty without tenure including some heads of programs such as Gilcrest.

"The notice ... is required to inform you of the university's intention not to offer you a lecturer appointment at the conclusion of your current contract ... ending May 12, 2018," the notice said.

Some lecturers have been at UM for more than a decade and are fixtures and leaders on campus. As a result of the notice, Hess is thinking about leaving UM, and he characterized the termination as "gutting my program." 

"I would like to first consider a leave of absence from the school so they can figure out their own nonsense," he said.

***

UM earlier tried to terminate lecturers by the start of spring 2018. However, the faculty union filed a grievance observing that the notice failed to honor the contractual rights of lecturers to "reappointment annually," and Main Hall rescinded its earlier letter.

The decision to cut lecturers could save UM some $1.8 million a year in the short term. Friday, President Sheila Stearns acknowledged it isn't clear if the cuts are a solid strategy for UM over the long run, although she thanked lecturers for their work.

"They are deserving of our utmost thanks and respect," Stearns said.

At the same time, she said UM must follow its policies. While she would like to have the flexibility to negotiate with all faculty, the union contract protects tenured faculty over contract faculty, she said, and with good reason.

"The contract was deliberately built that way," Stearns said. "You have to maintain your investment in your tenured or tenure track professors first."

UM officials have acknowledged that cuts to tenured faculty aren't off the table as part of an ongoing process to address budget challenges. Stearns said she hopes UM does not make cuts to tenured and tenure-track faculty, but if it must, it will be prepared in part with notices to lecturers. 

"We're not there yet. I hope we don't get there," Stearns said of reductions to tenured faculty. "But the first thing you have to do is the first thing. And that's fewer adjuncts and notices to lecturers to preserve your flexibility for the coming year."

***

UM emailed the notice to lecturers Friday and plans to mail letters Monday, according to Main Hall.

Stearns said notices were going to some 30 out of an estimated 40 lecturers because some already have arrangements for teaching beyond spring 2018. She also noted that in some cases, UM may rehire those instructors under different contracts.

"We will hope that we can either, at some point in our future with no guarantee, hire them back as adjuncts," Stearns said of instructors who teach a semester at a time.

She also said tenured faculty may be reassigned into the roles that lecturers are leaving. The letter giving lecturers notice came from the provost's office and also mentioned the possibility of adjunct contracts.

"To maintain the necessary flexibility for both the delivery of our academic curricula and financial management, the University of Montana will be discontinuing use of full-year contracts for lecturers," said the letter. "With very limited exceptions, contracts for non-tenurable faculty will only be offered on a semester basis.

"With preapproval from the Office of the Provost, individuals who were lecturers previously may be offered semester contracts as adjunct faculty." 

***

The adjunct status troubles Hess, who is pursuing a master's in literature with eco-criticism.

"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 fact, he said he actually came to UM with even higher expectations. He's certain other campuses would offer him full funding, and he'd hoped to be able to work hard and prove himself at UM in order to earn a tuition waiver and stipend instead of paying full out-of-state fare.

"But how can they offer me funding when they're firing their faculty? That plan kind of backfired," Hess said.

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.