Michel Valentin

Retired University of Montana professor Michel Valentin. 

Commissioner of Higher Education Clay Christian’s will to see the University of Montana “embrace relevancy" as it moves forward (Missoulian, Nov. 12, 2016) is closer to realization than ever before.

Although he “never… mandated any staffing reductions” (Campus Communications, Nov. 25, 2016), 40 faculty have now taken the buyout, 40 lecturers received “termination letters,” while more cuts loom on the horizon if student enrollment does not improve significantly.

In 2011, UM’s student enrollment was 16,000-plus. It now is, if one counts high-schoolers taking AP courses, 11,380-plus. In 2013, UM had around 3,400 staff/employees/faculty; it now has close to 2,800 (www.cappex.com/colleges/The-University-of-Montana).

Since 2011, over the years, $42 million was cut from UM’s budget while higher-ups’ positions multiplied, ushering a reign of lamentation and attrition, contraction and contradictions, cronyism and political correctness.

If not urgently remedied, present and future cuts, as well as the lack of radical/innovative vision, will soon turn UM’s “relevancy embrace” into a “kiss of death.” UM will become MU: Missoula University.

In the meantime, the Liberal Arts Building’s east façade is face-lifted ($8 million) while inside, the humanities are slashed. The $4 million Washington-Grizzly Champions Center, with a Griz mini Arc de Triomphe, nears completion while the UM library’s staff is halved and its budget cut for the third time.

Aug. 28-29, 10 President Search Committee members flew to a “neutral location” (Minneapolis) to “airport-interview” semifinalists, in spite of UM’s financial drought, to select on-campus interviewees. Guess who has the final decision?

In 2014, then-President Royce Engstrom used the administration/faculty collaborative “re-alignment process” to fire the first round of staff and faculty. In 2017, afraid of further job loss, professors jumped through more hoops. Taking into account the feedback gathered this winter by the “Creating Change Together” campus sessions of the Strategic Planning Gallery initiated by the Strategic Coordinating Council, the APASP Committee regularly met during summer vacations (while being paid) to deliver its recommendations as to whom/what should be “re-prioritized” (read “cut”).

Demoralized, supine professors, especially those with a literary sensibility, hence unprepared for the blunt wielding of Main Hall power cloaked in the attire of petit-bourgeois responsibility and manipulative metrics, collaborated. Complying with re-prioritization’s diktats, they embarked on tedious self-assessments, spewing data already accumulated by faculty evaluation committees and deans. Hoping to escape the provost’s guillotine, they all scrambled, trying to prioritize their jobs. Unable to offer collective resistance and counter-strategy, they escape the responsibility of student under-enrollment by shifting blame onto others. Sauve qui peut!

After having collaborated since 2017 by saying yes to the re-prioritization process (“We should not… simply say no to prioritization or we will be guilty of obstructionism," UFA Communications, Dec. 01), UM’s Faculty Association (“faculty union” was deemed unsavory years ago), finally decided to do something about the situation by filing a grievance for unlawful labor practice.

In the meantime, students, while paying more, are getting less course choice, faculty choice and program choice.

Of course, the humanities bear the brunt of this re-prioritization: only 20 percent of American students take “less-career-focused majors” (arts/humanities/social sciences). Who can blame them? Out-of-control tuition, state-support disengagement, consumerism, a technocratic higher ed, and politicos favor a utilitarian mass-education, updating Sinclair Lewis "Babbitt" philistinism: “That’s what the country needs, and not all this fancy stuff that just enfeebles the will-power of the working man and gives his kids a lot of notions above their class.”

Instead of re-prioritizing, UM should reshape its curriculum around holistic clusters, international area-studies, teaching/research rhizome-like structures, abolish departments’ vertical-partitioning, and close the humanities/sciences gap, as elite universities and research institutes are doing. Conventional surroundings and provincial navel-gazing stifle creative dissent and innovative thinking.

As in the town of Twin Peaks, at UM, no one is innocent.

Michel Valentin is a retired University of Montana professor and researcher for the Existential Psychoanalytic Institute and Society.

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