University of Montana provost Beverly Edmond fired back at the faculty union Wednesday after it asked the administration's interim leaders to defer important decisions to the next UM president.
"I take some serious concern with anyone besmirching my competence, my knowledge, my ethics, and my ability to lead an organization of this size," Edmond said.
Colleagues can disagree with her decisions, but she arrives at them with 40 years of experience as a public administrator, Edmond said. At a cabinet meeting with deans, she and UM President Sheila Stearns defended the competence of the administration.
Their remarks came after the University Faculty Association requested the current president and provost — both serving in interim capacities — to delay significant decisions until incoming President Seth Bodnar takes the helm in January.
The union made its request after the administration issued and quickly rescinded termination notices to lecturers for the second time in four months following allegations of contract violations. This week, the head of the faculty union described the situation as a "fiasco," and in a statement, the union said the interim administration's approach "undermined any confidence we have in their ability to make strategic decisions."
At the meeting, Stearns and Edmond pushed back, citing the lengthy careers of administrators in public service and their efforts to deal in good faith with colleagues.
"For me, disagree as much as you want, but I ask for the respect that I give to everyone else here," Edmond said.
She said public assessments of her skills should be based on facts, not assumptions, and she said she won't sit back and allow the attacks: "I have drawn my line in the sand."
The administration issued notices to lecturers, who are faculty members without tenure, because it is working to right-size a budget that puts too much money into personnel.
Stearns earlier noted the collective bargaining agreement properly protects UM's investment in tenured faculty, so the administration's strategy to first cut instructors without tenure is appropriate. UM has also sought voluntary buyouts from both faculty and staff.
Wednesday, the president said she apologized for the way the notice and repeal must have made lecturers feel, but she wouldn't apologize for imperfect administration, which she said is not a perfect art or science.
"Frankly, the fact that there's a credible assertion that it might be an unfair labor practice was worth reconsidering," Stearns said.
She also said she and faculty union President Paul Haber had talked Tuesday for more than an hour, and she requested the union and administration stop "shouting over the barricades" or communicating through statements. She said they had communicated well last school year, and she hoped they would do so again.
Some people think the administration is "high handed" at times, but UM officials are trying to adhere to policy and make decisions "with utmost respect," Stearns said. At the meeting, she also acknowledged the next few weeks will be difficult on campus.
"I always knew this last six weeks of my presidency would be the hardest," Stearns said.
Roughly a year ago, the Montana Commissioner of Higher Education requested that the UM president, Royce Engstrom, step down and appointed retired commissioner Stearns as an interim president. She launched an ambitious process to evaluate and prioritize UM's academic and administrative programs, in part to inform budget decisions. Now, the process is coming to a head.
Last week, Stearns received recommendations from a task force. A timeline notes she will issue decisions on UM priorities by next Friday. Many people have said the process was rushed, and at the meeting, Stearns joked about the deadline she herself now faced.
"Who set this ridiculous (prioritization) schedule?" she said.
Stearns said she and Bodnar will overlap for a couple of weeks in order to properly conduct a leadership transition.
At the meeting, vice president for administration and finance Rosi Keller also gave a brief update on the voluntary severance offers made to classified staff after School of Journalism Dean Larry Abramson said he kept bumping into people on campus who are leaving.
"Some of them are people I rely on very heavily," Abramson said.
Keller said Wednesday is the last day for staff to accept buyout offers, and they still have a week to retract. However, she said it appears that many staff members have opted to take the offers, which include six months of pay.
"There are significant numbers of individuals who will be leaving the university," said Keller, although she said a specific count was not available Wednesday.
UM will keep tabs on whether large groups of people leave from the same units in order to backfill as necessary, she said. But she said she needed to be candid about the reduction in force: "We are not going to provide the same level of service."
The departures will result in "hitches and glitches," but she said voluntary staff reductions are more humane than layoffs. The vice president also said she has reason to remain positive. The change, hard as it is, will allow UM to rethink the way it works, and she requested that people who stay at UM work together.
"I believe this provides an opportunity," Keller said.
Because of their vacation time, many staff members taking buyouts will actually be leaving as of next Friday rather than the end of the month, said Staff Senate President Maria Mangold. She asked people to be compassionate to staff come January because those still in the ranks would be overburdened.
"We really can't have any more staff cuts. This is it. We are going to be bare bones," Mangold said.
Stearns agreed. She said staff who remain may need to be reassigned or reconfigured, but the voluntary severance offers meant UM would experience "very few or close to no involuntary layoffs."
In other business:
- Royalties are up some 17 percent from last year at UM, with an additional $60,000, said Mario Schulzke, associate vice president of integrated communications. The income comes after a concerted push to increase licensing revenue, he said: "Those efforts are starting to bear fruit."
- Dean Paul Kirgis said the Alexander Blewett III School of Law recently ranked as one of the best law schools for public service, on the heels of earning top marks for best value earlier the same year.