Meradeth Snow is in her first semester working as a tenure-track faculty member at the University of Montana.
When the assistant professor in anthropology first read the transcript of the president's Nov. 17 budget address announcing massive cuts at UM, Snow worried about her own job. She was also dumbfounded to see President Royce Engstrom name her department among those targeted for cuts.
"I remember being very frustrated reading through it, and particularly shocked to see anthropology named, along with other departments," Snow said Monday.
Snow, who started at UM 3 1/2 years ago as a visiting assistant professor, is in the midst of setting up two new DNA labs in the Social Sciences building. She is teaching in a field the U.S. Department of Labor has pegged for 19 percent growth from 2012 to 2022.
"We study people. What could be more important? Really, when you come down to it, we need to understand ourselves and where we come from to hopefully be able to create a better future," Snow said.
As a junior faculty member, though, she has felt vulnerable in her job during the crisis, as have others who do not have security in tenure.
According to the UM School of Journalism, also named as a department slated to lose employees, the president's budget proposal for UM will slash the very people it needs in the future, as well as those closest to the latest developments in the field.
"We strenuously object to a university's budget-cutting process that targets our newest professors, those with expertise at the cutting edge of our profession and who represent the diversity so essential to the mission of this institution and its obligation to serve the larger community," read a letter to the president and provost signed by 10 journalism professors, including director of faculty affairs Dennis Swibold.
At the most recent Faculty Senate meeting, Engstrom said he believed UM could make its budget target by eliminating vacant positions, adjuncts and other temporary faculty. He said he could not make promises, but he believed tenure and tenure-track faculty – such as Snow – would be preserved.
Snow herself said a discussion with her chair mostly alleviated her fears of being laid off. But the budget problems are rippling through conversations with adjuncts who are in limbo, as well as current pupils in the classroom and former ones in the community.
"(There's) a lot of confusion and frustration and downright anger, to be honest," Snow said of her students. "They're hearing the president of their university say, 'Anthropology is dead. It's not worth it.'"
In smaller classes, she has spent time talking to students about their concerns. She points to the department's successes, such as having the highest percentage of students who study abroad.
"I want them to feel like they are secure in being able to graduate, to be able to do what they want to do, to follow their passions in this field because it's really troubling to me to see them be concerned about that," Snow said.
But she prefers the conversations about anthropology.
For example, Snow teaches students the reason people in different places around the world have different hair – curlier in warmer places, to protect the head from radiation, and straighter in cold areas.
She shows them skulls and skeletons, and she and the young anthropologists spend time talking about monkeys and apes and how humans fit into the primate order, with a shared ancestor. She's grown the department's collection of skulls at least 50 percent since she arrived at UM.
Snow is also setting up some $45,000 of high-tech laboratory equipment at UM, and from where she sits, anthropology is an exciting place to be. Graduates are finding jobs in fields as varied as conservation and forensics.
To her and some of her peers, the cuts are befuddling.
"We don't know what metrics are being used by Main Hall to make these calls, so we're just up in the air," Snow said.
In August, the president announced necessary cuts could be made through attrition, but last month, he called for cutting the equivalent of 201 positions, including 52 faculty jobs.
To achieve its target student-to-faculty and non-faculty ratios, the target number of faculty is 606, and the target number of non-faculty positions is 849, said UM Provost Perry Brown. He said Main Hall has provided the 18-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio as the framework for the institution, with those who manage specific units to fill out the details.
In his budget forum, the president referred to "adjustments," Brown said. "We didn't even say 'cut' in this thing."
On Monday, he said adjustments wouldn't necessarily be cuts because programs could revise their programming. He also said enrollment played a part in the programs Main Hall identified for adjustments.
"Who is going to sit in the classes if those students are not here?" Brown said. "It's a matter of sizing the thing to the students that are here."
The administration has received proposals from deans in response to the president's plan to "right size" UM, and it is still negotiating some of them, he said. Many people are providing input from the bottom up, as the process should be, he said.
The Nov. 23 letter from journalism professors named three faculty members the president's process puts at risk.
Jason Begay, president of the Native American Journalists Association, takes students to Montana's reservations each year "to report in-depth on the lives of the state's first inhabitants. Surely, his work is central to UM's aim to serve the most under-reported community in the state," according to the letter.
Jule Banville is "a leading voice in the national resurgence of audio storytelling through podcast and radio," with her students' work aired nationwide, according to the letter.
Joe Eaton was noted as "a rare investigator skilled at finding the stories hidden within Big Data," an asset beyond the journalism department to students in business analytics.
"To cut any of these new faculty members would be a blow to the school's future," the letter said. "The national attention these faculty bring clearly aligns with UM's strategic vision, and the loss of any of them diminishes its validity."
Snow, who received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis, in 2011, liked UM the minute she set foot on the campus. She was hoping to land a permanent post here once she got her assistant position.
"Getting an academic job is like winning the lotto. It's not so easy," she said.
She sees the enrollment drop in her department as similar to the general trend across campus, and definitely not a decline that merits being singled out. The answer to UM's budget trouble should not be crippling departments, Snow said.
These days, she thinks about her future a lot.
"I feel like I have managed to knit myself into the community as best I can over the last few years, and it would be very disheartening to have that be ripped out from underneath me," Snow said.
She knows others are at greater risk, and with the potential layoffs come a change in what anthropology can offer students in the future.
"There has to be another way," Snow said.