University of Montana UM campus

Budget woes have stressed programs at the University of Montana, even to the point of putting the future accreditation of some at risk.

The chemistry undergraduate program, for instance, has seen a 71 percent decrease to operating budgets and expenditures over five years, according to reviewer reports that are part of UM's prioritization process.

But faculty and students are performing ahead of benchmarks in many cases and continue to earn national accolades.

Undergraduates in music, for example, exceed national teaching test scores by 1.19 percent, and 100 percent of music education students found public school employment last year.

In the past five years, the wildlife biology program has received 22 "prominent awards," all while experiencing cuts.

UM is undergoing a process to set academic and administrative priorities, and reviewer reports produced as part of the project underscore some known themes about the campus, such as its financial struggles and academic achievements.

But a partial review of those reports also offers other insights into the Missoula flagship. For example, the threads that tie UM's faculty and students to Montana — and to service — are strong.

Students enrolled in the gerontology minor count nearly 3,000 hours a year in service to older adults, according to reviewer reports.

Some 60 percent of students getting a master's in "teaching middle school mathematics" are serving rural or tribal populations, according to the same reports.

And more than 90 percent of graduates from the Alexander Blewett III School of Law stay in Montana "to serve business, government and nonprofits."

"As I was reviewing, what I was struck with is there is a lot of really, really good work being done at the University of Montana that directly benefits the citizens of Montana," said Mary-Ann Bowman, chair of the Faculty Senate.

"This is place where people, instead of maybe grandstanding or showboating, they put their heads down, and they work hard, and they are trying to make a difference."

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The reviewer reports, posted online, put a point on some of the effects of the recent budget cuts at UM — and potential effects of ongoing reductions.

UM has seen a drop in overall enrollment since 2010. While it's seeing signs that show the ship is righting, the campus is still making reductions in response to the decline.

The graduate program in social work has received national recognition for its quality and affordability, for instance. It also admits just 25 percent of applicants due to enrollment caps compared to the national average of 60 percent admission.

But the loss of a faculty line is a problem for maintaining the appropriate student-to-faculty ratio, according to a reviewer report.

"MSW is stretched and at the cliff of possibly violating CSWE (Council on Social Work) accreditation because of losing a faculty line," according to the report.

In undergraduate chemistry, the steep drop in expenditures means faculty and instructor phone and internet connections were canceled or are being paid for through grant money for indirect costs, "which reduced funding to support research activities." The report notes "all undergraduate student employees were terminated."

The program "will struggle to maintain accreditation with continuing budget shortfall," according to a review.

Bowman, herself a reviewer for the project, said although some reports indicate budgets are shrinking, some departments have been able to shift resources. In general, she said it's difficult to understand a program's complete budget picture only from reports associated with the prioritization process.

At the same time, she said UM needs a new plan for how it manages financial cuts, and the process underway is among a series of new approaches UM is taking.

"This process is just one part of a different plan for how to deal with budget realities at the University of Montana," Bowman said.

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Despite budget cuts at UM, faculty have continued to earn awards, and the institution is still ranked high nationally when it comes to academics.

In public and community health sciences, the core faculty have brought in roughly $20 million since 2013, according to a reviewer report.

Students in accounting in the College of Business do exceptionally well compared to their peers nationally when it comes to passing the CPA exam. A report on the graduate program notes the passage rate is 74 percent compared to the national average of 54 percent.

The program is "lean" and "highly productive." As with other program reviews, though, the leanness cuts both ways; UM is efficient compared to its peers, but shoestring budgets can't get much shorter without consequences.

"Faculty are stretched as thinly as any on campus; the ability to sustain high quality is at risk," reads the report on graduate accounting.

In the graduate program in systems ecology, eight faculty counted more than 100 invited presentations, 147 published peer reviewed papers, and 135 grants totaling $18.4 million over five years, according to a report.

The productivity in that program mirrors that of other programs, and Bowman said the good work identified in the reports reflects her view of UM. She sees much positive enterprise on campus despite a focus sometimes on negative issues.

"The University of Montana, from my perspective, is a vibrant, compassionate, exciting place. It's not this doom and gloom," she said.

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Reviewer reports show a lot of the work taking place at the public institution or by graduates contributes to the social fabric of Montana, and UM maintains ties to tribal communities as well. The bachelor's of social work program is one example.

"The program instills leadership values in its students, is involved in at least 50 healthcare agencies in Western Montana, and as actively involved in helping students from tribal colleges in the state complete their bachelor's degrees," according to one reviewer report.

UM graduates account for 40 percent of the physical therapy workforce in Montana, one report said.

The interdisciplinary graduate program notes 42 percent to 57 percent of its students are Native American, "supporting the value of diversity."

And students in the accounting program help Montanans with their tax returns, according to another review.

"One great example of the program's service and outreach is its participation in the IRS' Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, (VITA)," notes the report. "Students are able to work in this volunteer program, which provides free assistance in tax return preparation to low income, elderly and disabled persons."

The report notes the students serve some 600 to 800 people every year.

In this regard, too, Bowman said the reports reflect well on the type of work that's being done at UM. She said academic professionals are at UM because they believe in its mission of service.

"So many faculty could make so much more money someplace else. But they choose to dedicate their lives to making a difference," Bowman said.

As planned, a task force will deliver recommendations for campus priorities by Thursday. In December, the Faculty Senate will hold a public hearing on the matter at a special meeting.

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.