Sheila Stearns

Sheila Stearns, interim president of the University of Montana, delivers the recent midyear address.

University of Montana President Sheila Stearns said Friday she asked the Commissioner's Office of Higher Education whether UM may offer early buyouts to personnel.

"It wasn't a formal request at all," Stearns said. "I'm curious. At this point, that would probably be good information to have."

UM announced in fall 2015 it needed to make cuts later estimated at $12 million due to falling enrollment. Last month, Stearns took the helm, and in her midyear update last week, she said the university remains personnel-heavy, with employees comprising 81 percent of the budget.

Planning for the 2018 fiscal year is starting, and Stearns is asking her team to plan for another enrollment drop, saying it's a wise way to budget.

At some point, the president said the question about the university's history with buyouts – or lack thereof – came her way, possibly from a faculty member at a social event. She passed along the question to Commissioner Clayton Christian.

"In a month or so, I bet I've had 100 questions, or 200 questions, for the commissioner," Stearns said.

The commissioner noted the "buyout" question on his calendar. The Missoula Independent reported the inquiry from Stearns, noting news of the entry came out of a public records request it made.

Deputy commissioner of communications Kevin McRae said Friday he plans to begin a conversation with human resources and legal staff to see if he can present any buyout options to Stearns. He said state government has used early retirement incentives, but the buyout concept has some complications.

"We might not recommend any type of an early retirement buyout program," McRae said.

In her midyear update, Stearns said she would like to see personnel account for closer to 70 percent of the UM budget, but she will be satisfied to see the the dial move to the high 70s.

The president said Friday she would not speculate on whether layoffs or buyouts will be part of the 2018 budget. But she said the budget planning team is sure to have a variety of suggestions, and it's common sense to explore options.

"Nothing is on the table. Nothing is off the table. (We are) just getting started on working pretty hard on the 2018 budget plan," Stearns said.

In doing so, she also also said UM must honor its union contracts. 

Last school year's budget fallout included reductions of 192 full-time positions and 27 layoffs, according to UM. By comparison, then-President Engstrom announced in fall 2015 that UM would need to cut 201 full-time jobs – 52 faculty posts and 149 other positions.

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.