The University of Montana is edging ever closer to financial and academic meltdown. The wall of silence around what is really happening at UM resembles the plywood fence around an urban construction site. A passerby can only guess at whether they are walking past a demolition or the beginnings of a brand new building.
Merely a month after receiving significant salary increases from the Montana University System, UM’s top administrators are preparing themselves for a devastating assault on the university’s academic programs. Chipping away at the foundation of a building will eventually cause it to collapse. Repeated attacks on the curriculum and academic programs undermine the very foundation and purpose of a university. Unfortunately, however, such an approach appears to be the crisis management tool most favored by the current administration. The principal target of this latest attack is the College of Arts and Sciences, the largest academic entity on the UM campus. This is not the first time that the current administration has targeted existing courses and faculty positions in an effort to remedy the effects of its own poor decisions. This time, however, the tactics of the UM administration have changed.
In a recent message to his faculty, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences has asked them to suggest the names of colleagues, staff and students who would serve on a committee responsible for recommending where further budgetary cuts should be made. Creating such a committee, and soliciting nominations for its membership, constitutes a disdainful and cynical attempt to play faculty members against one another and to shift the blame for the cuts squarely onto the shoulders of the faculty, students and staff. The creation of this committee is also intended to absolve the administration of any accountability for dismantling the university and its curriculum.
The creation of a university with a strong curriculum and a healthy budget should not begin with an attack on its course offerings, the very reason for the existence of an institution of higher education. Instead, it should commence by targeting wasteful spending, high-paying and superfluous bureaucratic positions, and sweet backdoor deals frequently reserved for a small and select group of darlings. UM’s top administrators should also return the handsome raises they recently received, and redirect these funds toward the courses and faculty they are planning to cut. They should also trim their own spending sprees and eliminate a number of high-paying and non-essential administrative positions, the absence of which would not leave any adverse impact on the university’s academic mission or on the services it provides to its students.
The elimination of only five administrative positions housed in Main Hall will save nearly $1 million. The UM administration should not forget the fundamental fact that the university does not exist in order to pay high salaries to a select group of expensive bureaucrats. Rather, the university exists for the students who study there, the faculty who teach and research, and the staff who manage it day to day. A productive faculty and a strong curriculum are essential to the mission of a university; individual administrators are not.
A top-heavy administration that views “marketing strategies” as the cure for all ills, but neglects to sustain the university’s core curriculum, stands in danger of offering nothing of substance to the students who know how to distinguish the real from the lemon. There must be substance behind hollow panache or those students who enroll will leave.
The importance of UM to the future well-being of the state of Montana demands that we approach crises constructively. UM faculty are organizing a university-community forum for Wednesday, Nov. 13 at 3 p.m., in the University Center building on the University of Montana campus, Room 331, to explore alternatives to the self-serving and destructive policies of the current administration. The time has arrived for UM faculty, students and staff, as well as all concerned citizens in Missoula and the entire state of Montana, to join forces and save this great institution from further decline, as well as financial and academic meltdown.
Mehrdad Kia is a professor of history at the University of Montana. This opinion is also signed by Christopher Anderson, Evelina Badery, Tim Bradstock, Maria Bustos, Peggy Cain, Bernard Constantin, Linda Frey, S. Neyooxet Greymorning, Mladen Kozul, Ian Lange, Steve Levine, L. Jack Lyon, Renee Mitchell, Todd Mowbray, Sally Peterson, Joseph Scalia III, Lewis Schneller, David Werner, G.G. Weix, Michel Valentin and Sarah McClain.