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Garry Kerr felt depressed this semester when he received yet another letter from the University of Montana about his termination.

So the faculty member got a puppy.

The story isn't quite that simple, of course, but Tuesday, a puffy, bouncy Akita pup named Huckleberry hung out in room 215 of the Social Sciences building at UM while Kerr filed the last of his grades for the semester and doled out chocolate to visitors.

"Grades are still due today so I'm making sure (no last-minute homework) is under the door," Kerr said.

The lecturer who has taught at the flagship some 30 years is among the nontenured faculty members who have received notices of non-renewal from UM this year. In August and then again in December, UM sent termination letters and then backpedaled, most recently in less than 24 hours.

Kerr said his latest contract marks his end date as May 12, 2018, although he believes he might see one more school year of teaching at UM anyway, possibly more.

But the flipflopping on the status of lecturers has pained him because he loves teaching and also loves his Mom: "It's been driving my mother crazy. You shouldn't drive anybody's 85-year-old mother crazy."

To help himself feel better the last time he received a termination letter, Kerr headed to Murdoch's to feed moss to a couple of visiting reindeer. In his exhausted state from having "just got fired again," he believed he was getting a message from one of the reindeer.

"He was looking me right in the eye, and in my mind, I could hear him saying, 'I'm giving you something special for Christmas,' " Kerr said.

At home later, Kerr pulled open a copy of the Missoulian newspaper, and a little ad in the back offered Akita puppies at Gold Creek. Kerr has had five other Akitas in his life, but he'd recently ended up without a dog for the first time since he was 4 years old.

A new pet was meant to be. On a visit with the puff balls, Huckleberry adopted him, as dogs do, and nearly a week after a sleep-deprived Kerr brought her home, she tailed him to campus.

"The reindeer was totally right. He forecast that I've been good to others even though things have been tough. It's emotionally hard to be terminated when you think you're doing your best," Kerr said.

In actuality, Kerr doesn't believe he'll stop teaching given that the work is his calling. In fact, he believes good teaching, in his case with many props, is the way to help UM through its budget crisis, and a way to keep students at the core of the campus.

"My backup plan is to stay right here and teach," Kerr said.


In his office hang awards he's received for best professor, along with the tools he brings to his anthropology classes that make subjects more than items in a PowerPoint presentation. Maasai weapons. Bags of Montana grown lentils. Navajo code talker action figures.

"We can teach our way out of this instead of cutting our way out of this," Kerr said.

He reinterprets the honors he's received, too: "I'm not the best. I just have the most fun." But he knows the best: "I've got the best students, which is lucky."

The faculty member who calls Jane Goodall a friend has taken UM students to Tanzania on a class trip and will do so again. In his office, he used one hand to pick up a Maasai "head knocker," a wooden staff of sorts with a heavy, pointed ball on one end, and he used the other to hold Huckleberry steady.

Kerr suspected he knew what she wanted to do in his office: "You want to terrorize my desk? I know what you'll do to that wood down there."

In a setting where teaching three classes a semester is more the norm, Kerr said he usually teaches five or six a semester. "I always teach one for free at the (Davidson) Honors College." That class is just one credit, but this fall term, his course load included one course with 200 enrolled and another with 300 students, and he's among their biggest fans.

"I think the one thing people keep forgetting is the most common denominator for everyone is the students," Kerr said.

He aims to keep them front and center. One course he teaches is called "Death by Chocolate," where students have to write their own obituaries, and every Friday, he brings them chocolate. Anyone who needs Dagoba, Hawaiian chocolate or Almond Roca should just swing by his office. If he's not there, he's filled plaster casts of cupped hands on his door with M&Ms, going through four bags a week.

The lentils in his office are part of another class he taught where students read "Lentil Underground," a book about Montana farmers by Liz Carlisle. He's cooked lentils for the students, introduced them to the author, and handed out recipes and different types of dry lentils. The legumes are drought tolerant, high in protein and some of the easiest food to make.

"These are one of the solutions to the world's problems," Kerr said.


As UM has made financial cuts, Kerr said the "whittling away" isn't good for morale for students, faculty or staff, especially when multi-million-dollar buildings are going up at the same time. Tuesday, he ticked off some of the names of the faculty members who are lecturers without tenure protection, who lead programs at UM and do work off campus, like Traolach O'Riordain, head of Irish Studies.

"I don't see a bum in the lot," he said.

He picked up a postcard he's sent to potential students with a heat sensitive eclipse stamp. He invites them and their parents to any of his classes, and he follows up with a thank you when they accept. Enrollment has dropped at UM for years, and his outreach was another reason he was deflated to get a termination notice.

"That was fairly depressing because I just recruited a ton of students this summer, and I want to see them through to graduation, and I told their parents I'd be here," Kerr said. 

In an email Tuesday, UM communications director Paula Short said the campus will make decisions about lecturers later in January. This month, roughly 90 staff accepted voluntary severance offers, and President Sheila Stearns has said their departures may offset some of the reductions UM wanted to make with lecturers. Earlier, an estimated 30 lecturers received notices.

"The UFA (University Faculty Association) has advised President Stearns (and she has agreed) to wait until closer to the start of the spring semester in late January to finalize decisions on letters of non-reappointment for lecturers," Short said. "Last week, the UFA informed lecturers of the change in timeline. Spring semester instruction begins on Monday, Jan. 22, 2018."

UFA President Paul Haber said the union made the suggestion so that the president could make the decision about lecturers in context of the 2019 fiscal year budget and the results of the recent process to set program priorities on campus.

In the next few weeks, Kerr will continue to pop into his office to prep for courses. The visits will help socialize Huckleberry, a welcome symbol of permanency to the teacher that runs contrary to the shifting scene at UM for lecturers.

"The next 12, 13 years, I'm going to be raised by this dog," Kerr said. "This dog, that's a contract you can't back out of."

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.