UM must right its academic course first

2013-10-17T08:15:00Z UM must right its academic course firstGuest column by MEHRDAD KIA missoulian.com
October 17, 2013 8:15 am  • 

In the past two years, the University of Montana has scrambled from one crisis to the next. Like a football team that keeps on fumbling the ball inside its own end zone, the university cannot expect to move forward and win the game against tough competition unless its leadership can avoid getting out-coached and turning over the ball.

Hardly a week passes without the community learning about another embarrassing incident or a controversial decision. There is now no doubt that the crises the university faces today are self-inflicted. The mishandling of the sexual assault allegations and their aftermath, the unexplained firings of the athletic director and the football coach, the panic-stricken response to the arrival of federal investigators in Missoula, and the signing of a highly flawed agreement with the departments of Justice and Education, all originated in Main Hall itself. It is these failings and mishaps that have caused a significant drop in enrollment, a sharp decrease in revenue and a loss of reputation for the institution.

But bad news keeps on coming. The most recent to hit the press, on Oct. 5, was the announcement by UM’s vice-president for administration and finance that the university was planning to make permanent cuts to academic programs. These cuts come at a time when top administrators at UM are receiving significant salary increases, and as the university is hiring an expensive outside firm to help with recruitment of students. If these handsome raises were paid to an administration flush with success, and these spending sprees were invested in major institutional improvements, one might have been tempted to argue that they were deserving compensation for a dynamic and accomplished team. Coming, however, in the wake of a significant decline in enrollment, a substantial decrease in revenue and a damaged reputation, these salary increases are viewed by many at the university and in the community as a slap in the face of the hard-working and low-paid UM staff, and a faculty struggling to negotiate a meager pay raise.

The fundamental questions, which the local media has ignored and the UM administration has failed to answer, are: Why is there always money available for new lucrative administrative positions and raises, while there is always a budgetary shortfall when it comes to supporting the staff and the faculty who constitute the backbone of the university? And why doesn’t the administration balance its budget by applying cuts to administrative salaries, benefits and discretionary budgets before targeting the existing academic programs?

Adding insult to injury, the university community is awakening to the disturbing news that the UM administration is planning to send the names of students, staff and faculty who refuse to complete a mandatory tutorial on its new sexual harassment policy to the federal government, specifically the Department of Justice. Negotiated without consultation with faculty, staff or student governance, the agreement with the federal government has been sharply criticized by liberal and conservative commentators and academicians in numerous publications such as the Atlantic, Commentary, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, and on the websites of several national organizations, including FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), which has denounced the agreement as violating free speech and the basic constitutional rights of UM employees.

The university’s unwillingness to listen to these critics, and its determination to send the names of those who refuse to take the tutorial to the federal government, have forced groups of faculty to consult attorneys and contemplate filing a lawsuit against the administration. After ducking a legal confrontation with the Advocates for Missoula’s Future, which was threatening a lawsuit if a Missoula College building were to be built on the UM Golf Course, the university now confronts the possibility of facing its own faculty members in a courtroom.

The UM administration must awaken to the reality that the strength, legitimacy and future of the university depend on a robust and solid curriculum, a strong and productive faculty and a safe and professional environment. Throwing money at the bureaucracy and at marketing gimmicks with one hand, while pulling the rug out from under academic programs with the other, will do nothing to right the university’s course.

Mehrdad Kia is a professor in the department of history at the University of Montana. This opinion is also signed by Linda Frey, Christopher Anderson, Evelina Badery, Peggy Cain, L. Jack Lyon, Lewis Schneller, Bernard Constantin, Michel Valentin, Timothy Bradstock, Todd Mowbray and Mladen Kozul.

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(8) Comments

  1. Pistol
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    Pistol - October 20, 2013 10:13 pm
    Interesting letter from an insider. I wonder what President Engstrom will resort to now? A background check on the professer? To bad the AD and coach didn't have due process?
  2. BR
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    BR - October 19, 2013 12:13 am
    Sometimes a burning issue is hidden in the words used. If, instead of administration and administrators, references were made to 'the business side,' the sports side', and the 'physical plant side' of the university, then it might be obvious the teaching staff are the ones that actually run the university and should have dominant say.
  3. Smedley
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    Smedley - October 17, 2013 9:01 pm
    President Megatron suffers from delusions of grandeur. When he was appointed to the highest paying job in our state he felt invested with "vision". Unfortunately that isn't the case with the public's perception of his accomplishments. Wait, what accomplishments? In the space of a very short time Royce has lost hundreds of incoming freshman (fresh women), thoroughly antagonized Griznation , fired two solid athletic achievers, allowed a two-time rapist to escape set up UM for wrongful dismissal lawsuits bamboozled everybody with an abortive Biomass project and did the same thing with the Golf Course expansion fiasco...there's more but I think we've had enough of Engstrom and his visions,
  4. Nikki's Niece
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    Nikki's Niece - October 17, 2013 4:06 pm
    Thank you for a courageous and timely letter that raises so many legitimate concerns. Those who continue to devote their professional lives to UM are increasingly demanding a voice in its future. Taxpayers, too, who want to see a return on their investment in higher education, are increasingly tired of the paltry excuses and treading water approach currently offered by the administration. Let’s hope Main Hall smartens up. After all, so much of the state’s future is entrusted to it. A quality workforce, a capable public service sector, and the overall economic health of the state depend on an informed and educated citizenry. Regardless of a student’s major, an education cannot be acquired piecemeal. The overall excellence of the curriculum must be maintained.
  5. Roger
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    Roger - October 17, 2013 9:52 am
    Excellent letter - UM is no longer interested in providing a genuine education to students who are actually qualified to be in a university, but in raking in the dough from students, to enrich the bloated administration.
  6. dave ajou
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    dave ajou - October 17, 2013 9:30 am
    When Dr. Kia speaks, one is well advised to listen carefully. President Engstrom responded to critics of the DOJ settlement requirement mandating the turning over of faculty and student names in Pelosi-ish fashion. He said something along the lines of not having read all of the details of the reporting requirements. My impression is that the UM administration was so eager to prostrate themselves to the DOJ, that they were willing to sign any settlement as long as their personal pocketbooks weren't affected. It's time to have more than just a "nice guy" at the helm, whether it's the office of the UM president, or the mayor.
  7. Joniker
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    Joniker - October 17, 2013 9:30 am
    It is refreshing to see that the good people of the academic community at UM are putting all the pieces together pointing out that Mr. Royce Engstrom is unfit for his current position. The administration will continue to lurch from side to side in a desperate attempt to get it right under his direction.

    By all accounts Mr. Engstrom is a fine person and good administrator in lower level capacities but not as the top executive of this fine institution. In my book his is directly responsible for the millions of dollars lost in tuition revenue because of botched handling of the issues presented in this letter to the editor. I am surprised we have not seen defamation of character lawsuits brought against both UM and Mr. Engstrom, but there may be hope yet..

    I say contact the head-hunters and let the nation wide search begin for his replacement.
  8. Cato
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    Cato - October 17, 2013 8:36 am
    I don't often agree with some of the signers of the Petition, but I do on this one.

    They did not give enough emphasis to the fact that this is all about Royce Engstrom and the accumulating evidence that he does not have the faintest idea what he is doing.

    At each step of the way, regarding issues raised in the LTE, and a lengthy list of others not mentioned, those of us tangled up in this maelstrom of incompetence ask, "what were they thinking," when it is obvious that they were not.
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