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Here are some morsels you'll learn in the history class of professor Michael Mayer at the University of Montana:

The church ladies loved the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. They called him "LLJ," short for "Little Lord Jesus."

The minister and civil rights leader plagiarized his dissertation.

He loved food, and he struggled with his weight before he was assassinated in 1968. 

"He wasn't perfect. He wasn't a saint. But he was an important and powerful and effective leader," said Mayer last week to a room with more than 100 students.

Mayer has a doctorate from Princeton University, and he's a specialist in the civil rights movement. To learn from him is to learn from a scholar who has deep experience in one slice of U.S. history.

In recent years, UM's budget has taken hits since enrollment has fallen, and some students and faculty have denounced departmental cuts – and warned against them. But actual cuts aren't the only problem.

Departments that have long been acclaimed are feeling the consequences of losses from attrition and a freeze that requires the UM president's approval on any new hires.

In the history department, the number of faculty is roughly the same as it was when Mayer first was hired in 1988, some 13 bodies, with one person splitting time with another sector, according to Mayer and department Chairman Robert Greene.

But as faculty members retire and the department remains unable to fill positions, enormous gaps in expertise have emerged.

For roughly three years, UM has not had a historian of the U.S. West, a faculty member who used to draw stellar graduate students with interest in the West.

"Given our location and given the existence of other strong programs on campus like environmental studies and Native American studies, history of the West is really important," Greene said.

Greene said the department also is missing expertise in significant periods – medieval history, the Renaissance and Reformation – and places of the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa.

Longtime history professor Linda Frey said students in the department may get more attention than ever, and they still get an excellent education in the fields of expertise available. But the gaps hurt the institution.

"This kind of bleeding is affecting the formation of our identity, which is why we've got to stop it," Frey said.

***

In the tight budget environment at UM, faculty have gone without desk phones and office supplies. But asking a faculty member with expertise in Asian history to teach a class on colonial America doesn't work.

"Linda is a very talented European historian. But she can't teach American history," Mayer said.

Frey said it would be like asking people in the trades to do each other's jobs: "You, the plumber – be an electrician."

The breadth of expertise is a hallmark of a flagship research institution. Mayer said the rich knowledge base within programs distinguishes the university from a community college or a junior college.

"We weren't trained broadly. We were trained to be specialists," he said.

Former President Royce Engstrom pushed global education at UM, but Mayer said it isn't easy to offer students an international perspective with the gaps that exist. 

***

The holes don't make recruitment easy either, and UM needs more students.

When the history department had a historian of the U.S. West in place, it attracted the cream-of-the-crop of students who had an interest in that area.

"It was really a major draw for us as far as getting topnotch graduate students from around the country to come to Missoula," said Greene, the department chair. "A lot of graduate students have since gone on to positions at universities across the country."

In 2006, when Greene arrived, the department counted some 24 graduate students, and more than half of them were working on research with Dan Flores, then the A.B. Hammond chair and historian of the West. Greene said the department counts probably 20 graduate students at most today, and just a couple are doing work in the West.

"The students who are applying are well aware of what universities have strong programs in western history, and they're applying for those programs right now, and we're not one of them," Greene said. "When we get the Hammond professor, I think we'll be back at a position of regional and national strength in that field."

Full-time faculty teach all their own general education courses in history instead of farming them out, he said. The history department also is one of the smallest in the United States that grants doctoral degrees.

Robert Lambeth, a doctoral student, is focused on Northwest labor history, and he said the hole in the department affects his research. Lambeth chose UM partly because it's close to Spokane, where he has family.

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The lack of a historian of the West means he relies on another professor for guidance, and that faculty member is spread thin, he said. Lambeth also doesn't have a peer group familiar with the same era.

"Ultimately, that takes away from the learning experience and the kind of feedback that people need for their specific research," Lambeth said.

***

Austin Wardlow attends UM because the school was willing to accommodate his needs.

"I will gladly disclose this. They were very willing to work with me with my learning disability," Wardlow said.

The student who moved to Montana a couple of years ago said professors in the department, such as Mehrdad Kia and John Eglin, have more than met his expectations, and he praised them all: "Across the board, I have been completely amazed by them."

But he would choose to take courses in medieval history, and the Renaissance, and Reformation, were they available. Wardlow said his exposure at UM to some areas of history made his interest grow even if he wasn't originally drawn to them.

"I don't think you can put a price on or diminish the value of being able to understand people, society, and how things happen and how they operate," Wardlow said.

Professor Mayer said Wardlow isn't alone in wanting to take more courses than UM has available: "When (students) get here, often they find they can't take things they'd like to take, and that's a shame."

But budget pressures are strong across campus, and the history department didn't lose faculty from last school year to this one.

"At UM, if you've got a finger in the dike, you don't have a leak," Mayer said.

***

Professors in other fields have made the same observations that numbers don't reveal the whole picture when it comes to cuts.

Faculty from the School of Journalism outlined the potential losses to their field in November 2015 when then-President Royce Engstrom announced UM would make deep budget cuts likely to affect instructors without tenure.

The school was at risk of losing an expert in Native American journalism, a podcast and radio producer who mentored four Hearst winners in three years, and a data analyst whose expertise was sought by other units on campus.

In the end, those three faculty members stayed, but UM is facing another overall budget reduction.

Meanwhile, the deep employee cuts Engstrom called for didn't take place, and the current president and Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education have called for a trimmer budget given the enrollment slide of some 24 percent since 2010.

Current President Sheila Stearns, who holds that job on an interim basis while UM seeks Engstrom's permanent replacement, has said UM needs to move the percent of personnel in the UM budget down several points from more than 80 percent.

An increase in fall enrollment would help, but UM officials have said they aren't expecting one yet. Professor Frey said she isn't anticipating a big jump in history majors either, but interest in different fields is cyclical too.

"We've been through this before, right?" she said. "Even though we try not to remember it, but it's really true. It will probably go back the other way if we hold on long enough."

***

At UM, accreditation is underway, and associate provost Nathan Lindsay said the holes in history do not affect it, but he understands the concern about quality.

The most recent program review of history at UM took place in spring 2014, and the reviewer described UM's history department as a model.

"There is no doubt that the Department of History at UM has long maintained a tradition of excellence and remains well regarded, on the national level, for its scholarly productivity and teaching accomplishments," wrote Sean Quinlan, of the University of Idaho.

At the same time, the reviewer noted the program faced decisions about hires and "the tension between pursuing increased specialization or a broader curriculum." The report suggested the program begin a process of "self-reflection" about its areas of emphasis and how they fit into UM's vision.

Faculty still have philosophical differences around that tension, Greene said. 

"Some in the department here are in favor of trying to get as much geographic coverage as possible, which is important and admirable," he said. "Others I think are focused on trying to build to our existing strengths in political history, religious history, cultural history."

He also said with the tight budget, it's a moot point. 

The overall campus is currently in the midst of several planning efforts, including a program review and strategic plan.

Greene said the administration recognizes the need to fill the historian of the U.S. West post and considers it a priority. But the budget will be smaller next school year, and he believes UM may postpone the hire one more year.

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