It’s not quite the blueprint for the future we were hoping for.

The much anticipated draft report from President Sheila Stearns outlining the University of Montana’s priorities is far too vague and lacking in steps for immediate action. The document released last week contains a number of broad recommendations, certainly, but each requires a great deal of further study to determine specific costs and benefits.

It appears the critical work of deciding just what to cut and what to enhance at the university will fall primarily on the shoulders of its deans and program directors — and incoming President Seth Bodnar.

Despite an expedited timeline for the prioritization process that had faculty and staff scrambling to gather an array of information about their classes and programs, the university appears headed into a new administration in a new year under a lingering cloud of uncertainty, instead of a fresh start.

Part of the reason for this missed opportunity is the fact that the university’s budget was far from certain even as recently as November, when the Montana Legislature met in special session to hammer out solutions to state budget woes. That session concluded with a funding decrease of $4.5 million for the Montana University System. Federal tax reform, including the loss of private activity bonds used by nonprofits, hospitals and universities to finance major progress, will have further as-yet unknown effects on higher education budgets in Montana.

Yet many were led to expect that by this point, UM’s prioritization process would at least spell out which cuts would result in how much savings for the university, which academic areas are performing and which are dwindling.

The 12-page document titled “University of Montana Academic Program and Administrative Services Prioritization: President Sheila M. Stearns’ Recommendations and Reflections” includes a list of 40 recommendations, but a key metric missing from the report is how the recommendations translate into savings. Budget considerations should not be the only factor in prioritization, of course. But they are, obviously, an important factor and any impacts on the university’s budget should be more explicit.

Stearns’ “essay,” as she describes it, states that “high-level implementation plans should be prepared by or submitted to vice presidents and the president” by Jan. 11, 2018 and that “negotiating specific timelines for each recommendation is up to the vice presidents. For the most part, they should be completed by January 31, 2018.”

Meanwhile, Stearns and her team will go over the university’s preliminary budget with the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, discussions that will include, presumably, the results of several rounds of faculty buyouts and staff severances aimed at reducing personnel costs. This number, too, remains murky as some 90 employees have expressed interest in buyouts. An unknown number of these positions, which include top department posts, will need to be refilled.

It makes no sense to refill positions in programs that will only be reduced or restructured. It also makes little sense to offer buyouts to top faculty positions that will almost certainly need to be refilled; in fact, competing for quality candidates may end up costing the university more if it needs to offer high salary and benefits to attract them.

Stearns has noted previously that the university spends a relatively high portion of its budget, 80 percent, on personnel, and her report calls on the university to “reduce costs through most strategic deployment of faculty.”

However, Stearns noted that the percent of UM’s operating budget dedicated to personnel has actually climbed to 89 percent. Meanwhile, a Staff Senate report discussed last week showed that 245 classified staff out of 354 have been performing duties outside their regular job descriptions. The majority, 82 percent, are not being paid more to do more.

At some point, if a significant number of personnel are going to be cut, the duties they are being paid to perform will have to be cut too. The “staff sharing” suggested throughout the draft report is certain to result in some savings, but it must be balanced carefully against the risk of overburdening and burning out existing faculty and staff.

Stearns recommends cutting programs “in fields that cannot justify current numbers of faculty" yet does not list those fields. One of her recommendations is to "Invest in programs that demonstrably support retention, persistence and completion," the sort of broad goal that ought to come at the beginning of a months-long prioritization process, rather than 10 months in.

The prioritization process has led the university community through important information-gathering and critical discussions, but at this point, after all this work, UM should at least have a clearly articulated mission statement on what it wants to be — and what distinguishes it from other universities, particularly Montana State University. That mission statement is what should drive strategic decisions about what to cut and what to keep, and UM should spend its limited resources only on those things that help it achieve its strategic vision.

At the start of the new year, Bodnar and Stearns will share leadership duties for a couple of weeks before Bodnar assumes full responsibility as president in mid-January. If Bodnar and Stearns use their leadership transition period to better define the university's mission, and then sort through the data and make decisions, UM will be on much more solid footing as it takes its next steps into the future. 

Outbrain