University of Montana campus UM

University of Montana campus

The University of Montana should launch a new Division of World Languages and Culture to possibly incorporate several academic units.

That's one recommendation that came Friday from a task force charged with evaluating academic and administrative priorities at UM.

The task force has been reviewing programs, some 400 total units, as one of the strategies to help fix budget woes stemming from an enrollment drop. The task force earlier voted to rank programs as a top priority for growth, a priority for "development and/or modification," or a "priority for substantial modification."

Friday, it issued a "rough cut" of recommendations for programs, albeit with caveats.

"The limitations of our process … lead the TF (task force) to offer our recommendations as a 'rough cut' deserving further deliberation by the campus, rather than a blueprint for action," the report said.

The recommendation to start a Division of World Languages and Culture came for some programs ranked for "substantial modification."

For example, the task force placed East Asian undergraduate studies in a category for substantial modification, and it recommended "exploring integrating this unit into a new "Division of World Languages and Cultures, as suggested in the Dean's response." It recommended the same for the Latin American studies minor, undergraduate classics, and French.

Faculty, staff and student governing bodies will weigh in on recommendations, and President Sheila Stearns is slated to make final decisions by Dec. 15.

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In making its recommendations, the task force sought to "protect our identity as an internationally recognized flagship liberal arts university" without compromising its agility.

The report recommends eliminating undergraduate "global humanities and religions," but also suggests that majors be assisted with graduating and that tenure-track faculty be incorporated into other departments in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

The report does not discuss specific programs ranked as top priorities for growth, earlier identified and including undergraduate music, biology and environmental studies. The task force notes it will make further analysis in Phase II of prioritization, to start in January.

In the meantime, however, the report notes those units should be sustained at current levels and prioritized for additional resources.

By many accounts, the process was rushed, and the report notes the task force did not make recommendations for units to be considered for "development and/or modification" "due to time constraints." Most academic units were placed in this category.

"At this point in our deliberations, the task force recommends that prior to modification of or investment in these units, further input from dean and sector heads be sought," the report said.

The report also notes UM could move forward in a variety of ways with prioritization results.

"These recommendations are the first of what will be a long, sometimes painful process of rebirth for our great institution," the report said.

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In its recommendations, the task force noted the strengths and weaknesses of the process, pointing out that the relationship between setting priorities and the budget "has been a mystery."

"The lack of direction from the cabinet and lack of engagement from university budget officials left the TF (task force) with a very limited capacity to incorporate financial considerations during the review and recommendations process," reads the report.

Stearns agreed the process was fast and far from perfect, but said UM now has much more information on which to base decisions than it had a year ago. She also agreed a budget target was unavailable to the task force, but she said that's because the budget has many components, and data points have been emerging over time.

For example, UM didn't know in September how much tuition revenue would come in.

It still doesn't know exactly how many staff will accept voluntary buyouts.

Yet at the same time, Stearns said details are emerging. Friday, for instance, UM issued termination notices to lecturers, and if it doesn't have to pay them next school year, it will save some $1.8 million, although she said it may have to "backfill" some positions. (See related story.)

"The mystery is the resources we have. That's getting clearer by the day," Stearns said.

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.