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.

University of Montana President Sheila Stearns released Tuesday a draft report with 40 recommendations for campus priorities and some pointed requests.

One academic recommendation?

"Merge the School of Art and the School of Media Arts within the College of Visual and Performing Arts," the report said.

The months-long process has frayed nerves on campus, but this particular recommendation drew praise from a couple of faculty leaders. School of Art director Kevin Bell said the merger comes out of requests from students, and presents an opportunity for UM.

"We could grow into a pretty significant regional powerhouse," Bell said.

Dean Stephen Kalm of the College of Visual and Performing Arts said many campuses around the country meld digital and non-digital media programs, and doing so at UM could put the flagship on the map for the arts.

"We’ll have one of the largest art schools — art-slash-media schools — in the Northwest, and one of the largest programs on campus with over 400 majors," Kalm said.

An administrative recommendation?

Put money into the Office of Enrollment Management and Student Affairs. A task force that had reviewed and ranked some 400 academic and administrative programs as part of the prioritization process did not list enrollment at UM as a top priority despite an ongoing drop that has resulted in budget problems.

Stearns, though, said the Admissions Office requires additional investments, regardless of how the task force ranked it. But she also requested budget details.

"The office must justify with specificity to the president ways it has used its budget in the past two years and how it proposes to use increased investments going forward," the report said.

Roughly a year ago, Stearns took the helm at UM when the Montana Commissioner of Higher Education asked former president Royce Engstrom to step down after years of declining enrollment and ensuing budget trouble. Stearns, former commissioner, came out of retirement to serve UM in an interim capacity, and she tapped the provost to undertake the ambitious and arduous review of programs.

The process outlined online describes the president's role as presenting decisions to the campus and community. The report Stearns presented shares recommendations and reflections, and it asks deans and directors to use the information in making suggestions for savings in the upcoming budget cycle. In January, Stearns will pass the leadership role to incoming President Seth Bodnar.

The report notes Bodnar may revise the process, but one phrase repeated throughout the report in various iterations is this: "We must reduce costs through more strategic deployment of current faculty."

"Even with all of the positive information contained in (prioritization) reports, I know that many programs will have to be reduced or discontinued for the University of Montana to operate within budget for the 2018-2020 timeframe," the report said. "(The process) will help with specific decisions so they are as strategic as possible and not 'across the board.'"

Early on in her tenure, Stearns said UM spent too much of its operating budget on personnel, at some 80 percent. She wanted to see the percentage drop at least a couple of points, but this semester, the president noted the percentage had climbed to 89.

She has continued to stress that UM must spend less on personnel in order to invest in other needs such as technology, and the report notes the campus will reduce faculty in the "near-term future."

In the humanities, she recommends cutting programs "in fields that cannot justify current numbers of faculty." That specific recommendation did not name programs that should reduce faculty, and the president and Dean Chris Comer could not be reached late Tuesday afternoon through email for additional information.

However, Stearns also suggested keeping strong individual programs, and at the same time, building joint majors "under the tutelage of UM faculty with broad-fields expertise.

"For example, UM can build even stronger links among its faculty in history, political science, philosophy and literature, especially as the number of faculty in various departments decline in UM's near-term future," the report said.

The report identifies areas for investment as well. The president's recommendations include putting money into biological sciences across various schools and colleges; growing graduate programs "unique to UM" such as the MBA and master's in accountancy; and investing in UM's Health and Medicine Initiative, and if not with money, with "efforts to break down barriers among several colleges."

"An innovative, streamlined academic future for the University of Montana is possible," Stearns wrote. "(Prioritization) reports have given a springboard to emerge from a defensive crouch and to go forward through innovative restructuring."

***

Wednesday, the Staff Senate and Faculty Senate are slated to discuss the report, and Stearns noted in its conclusion that she will revise the draft based on further review and additional information.

However, the timeline for the process has been quick, and Stearns recommended a Jan. 11 deadline for deans and directors to submit "high-level implementation plans." She and Bodnar plan to co-serve as presidents the first two weeks of January as Stearns transitions out of the role and Bodnar takes over.

In the report, Stearns said the process should be used as "a catalyst for innovation and consolidation," and she identified some thematic areas for restructuring graduate and undergraduate programs.

"UM must save resources and reduce expenses in academic affairs. Just as crucially, it can better define outstanding niches for its future," the report said.

She provided a list of those suggestions from her own reflections, and she said it is not comprehensive:

  • Create a World Languages and Culture division as recommended by Dean Chris Comer. "Components of a new division could include disciplines (not necessarily programs) such as, although not limited to, the Classics, Russian, German, French, Spanish, Latin American Studies, Irish Studies, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, East Asian Studies, Central and Southwest Asian Studies, and South and Southeast Asian Studies. Efforts should include even stronger ties to the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center and Global Engagement Office."

  • Consider the opportunity to link applied math, data science, economics, business analytics, cyber security, and "big data," "to name a few." "Penetrate the silos between departments and colleges. We must reduce costs through more strategic deployment of faculty."

  • Strengthen existing and cross-disciplinary connections between the environment and ecology, "programs that characterize the entire campus already." Those include graduate programs in forestry and conservation, English, journalism, social sciences, biological sciences, Native American Studies and Missoula College. "For example, the Ecosystem Science and Restoration program could have been qualified in Category 1 for stable or increased investment, possibly sharing faculty with other worthy programs. The goal is to increase enrollment by efficiently and effectively meeting student demand in thematic ways, while potentially employing fewer numbers of faculty."

  • "The dean of the Davidson Honors College should propose opportunities for the university to invest in the honors program as a tool for student recruitment, retention and success, and as a laboratory for curricular innovation at UM." The dean and director of the Franke Global Leadership Initiative should explore opportunities to integrate their programs.

  • Innovate in public health. "I am struck by the frequent intersection of interests in public health, political science, education, behavioral sciences, social work, counseling, psychology, communication studies, and health and human performance, to name a few. (The prioritization process) has provided us, as a side benefit, the mandate to construct aggressive innovative programs in a rapidly changing field with worldwide demand."

  • Connect education with other disciplines such as political science, history, psychology, business, marketing and environmental studies: "America's public schools and our democracy desperately need our graduates. In spite of polls and ideologies that suggest the contrary, democracy and public well-being depend on universities to educate wise, well-rounded, compassionate teachers."

Other recommendations in the report include the following:

  • "Invest in programs that demonstrably support retention, persistence and completion."

  • Decrease or restructure support for the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West "in accordance with donor's gift agreements."

  • "Review whether savings can be achieved through stronger connection between the Broadcast Media Center, School of Journalism and the College of Visual and Performing Arts."

  • "Invest graduate school waivers in robust degree programs to the extent possible, including recruitment of international students."

  • Coordinate administrative services through Academic Affairs and the entire campus. "It is likely that some employees and services are isolated and duplicative."

  • Deans should consider task force reports, including plans for "moratorium or discontinuation," and develop plans regarding sustainability for the following undergraduate programs: applied science major, film studies minor, duplicate history and political science minors, bioethics certificate, health enhancement concentration, administrative systems management minor, and library media minor.

  • Connect the master of public administration program with the Baucus Institute in the School of Law.

  • "The Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies dean and stakeholders should determine the level of resources needed to sustain the program," identified by the task force as a top priority for growth and development.

  • Improve data and metrics and standardize data collection. "UM's Office of Institutional Research needs additional investment."

  • "The university should accept a definition of IT as a critical campus-wide service and utility, as well as an enabler for initiatives in UM's strategic vision." Even during hiring freezes, the president said some areas such as IT require new hires.

  • Evaluate communications as Bodnar plans, including marketing, University Relations, Alumni Relations, and do so in collaboration with admissions and enrollment management. "This appears to be a fruitful area for investment, restructuring and renewed emphasis."
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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.