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University of Montana President Seth Bodnar

University of Montana President Seth Bodnar addresses a crowd of faculty members earlier this month in the Music Recital Hall to outline his recommendations for what he calls a "Strategy for Distinction," to reorganize the school, reducing 50 faculty positions over the next three years, and put the university on a financially sustainable course.

Earlier this month, University of Montana President Seth Bodnar released preliminary recommendations for faculty reductions on the campus strapped for cash, and some expected reactions followed.

Called a "Strategy for Distinction," the proposal outlines a reduction of 50 full- time faculty positions, with steep cuts in English and languages. The plan generally responds to an ongoing enrollment drop and ensuing financial challenge at the flagship.

Criticism and confusion weren't hard to find. One faculty member described the recommendations as "half-baked," and another poster on social media subsequently dubbed the proposal a "Strategy for Extinction."

But a different sentiment was evident as well. At the initial meeting and after it, some faculty and other members of the campus community offered a hint of willingness to work with the recommendations and help move the campus past the budget shortfalls that have plagued it.

In the days that followed the meeting, a couple of campus leaders talked about the slightly new pitch in the discussion.

"We've been kicking the can down the road with strategic cuts, and as a result, all units on campus are spread way too thin," said Justin Angle, a member of the Faculty Senate and associate professor in marketing. "And this is at least an attempt to free up some resources to invest in programs that are starved and potentially to grow and serve students well."

Said Staff Senate President Maria Mangold: "I'm not trying to minimize the challenges ahead of us, but I did feel that shift in the conversation."

***

Questions abound nonetheless, as do deep concerns the proposed cuts don't align with UM's stated commitment to liberal arts. Some faculty worry a rewritten mission statement up for a vote in May by the Montana Board of Regents will fundamentally reform the identity of the liberal arts institution.

"What movement can there be at this point at refreshing the refreshed mission statement?" asked Professor David Moore at a listening session last week, citing the Strategy for Distinction's reference to a "refreshed" mission statement.

A couple of the departments slated to lose the most faculty positions are English, with six out of 21.5 full-time equivalent positions, and Modern and Classical Languages and Literature with 7.5 out of 17.25 FTE.

At the listening session, Moore described languages and literature as "decimated," and he said the new mission statement effectively changes the essence of the campus. He said one of his colleagues put it this way: "We're fighting for the soul of the university."

The concern comes despite committed statements about the liberal arts in the Strategy for Distinction. For instance, the proposal itself outlines four strategies, and the No. 1 item is this: "A Liberal Arts Education: The Innovative University of Montana Core."

When Bodnar started his job at UM in January, he formed the University Planning Committee and charged it with updating UM's mission statement among other tasks. In the proposal, he notes the UPC subcommittee "envisions a rich core curriculum" that builds on the strength's of UM's sciences and humanities.

"The re-imagined core will drive the rest of the academic enterprise, underscoring the vital role liberal arts disciplines play in the education of the whole student: a curriculum that fosters in every student intellectual capabilities and habits of mind, and, in an integrated and innovative way, brings out the best in UM’s broad base of arts and sciences," said the proposal.

However, unlike the current — and somewhat clunky — mission statement for UM, the revised one doesn't directly name the liberal arts, although the updated statement would certainly seem to support the academic enterprise of the College of the Humanities and Sciences.

"The University of Montana’s mission is to provide a high-quality and accessible education at a worldclass research university," reads the new mission. "We shape global citizens who are creative and agile learners prepared to build and sustain communities. As Montana’s flagship university, we lead conversations that question and expand the frontiers of knowledge to tackle the world’s most complex challenges."

In preliminary recommendations, the College of Humanities and Sciences is slated to lose the most faculty positions. At the same time, it's also the largest college; at the initial meeting, Bodnar noted the college would face the deepest reductions even if the administration made across-the-board reductions.

"The UM Core will reflect innovative ways to honor our 'humanities-driven' liberal arts tradition and will distinguish the UM undergraduate experience," said the proposal. "A UM education will promote the core competencies and values of thinking critically, exploring creatively, living ethically, and communicating effectively."

***

Unease about the proposal was clear at the Faculty Senate listening session last week.

Faculty members wanted to know how much time programs would have to shrink through retirements and natural attrition. They wanted to know when the process of retrenchment might officially begin — it has not started yet, but Faculty Senate Chair Mary-Ann Bowman said faculty are concerned the process could start as soon as the fall semester.

At the meeting, faculty wanted to know the administration's goals for proposed reorganizations. What will the university gain? Will the restructuring save any money? How will it affect people in the trenches?

"It's a bigger deal than they think, and so we sent them that message," said Paul Haber, president of the University Faculty Association.

Faculty members have long condemned the lack of transparency from Main Hall, but this time, some decried the way the administration brought the proposed program cuts to light. Anya Jabour, a professor of history, said it seems problematic that information that isn't final was made public and is causing "consternation and panic."

Liz Ametsbichler, chair of the department of modern and classical languages and literature, said transparency while the proposal was still in flux created confusion for students, who wonder whether a certain program would exist.

"It was more damaging in the name of transparency, I think, for us," Ametsbichler said.

Faculty members also said they want more information about the metrics that went into the preliminary recommendations. Jabour, for instance, said enrollment trends clearly played a role, but research productivity of the faculty did not appear to.

Ametsbichler also mentioned a "disturbing email" from President Bodnar. The letter addressed to alumni noted her program was slated for change, but UM still valued her degree and needed support.

"Your time learning with us in Griz Nation will remain a valuable investment," the letter said. It closed with, "Go Griz!"

Ametsbichler said she didn't appreciate the tone in the letter, and her education has nothing to do with Griz Nation: "I found that insulting at the end. Your degree is being dismantled, but 'Go, Griz.'"

***

Last week, the administration would not characterize how minimally or significantly the feedback to date might change the preliminary recommendations.

However, President Bodnar directly addressed UM's strategy for teaching languages in a statement provided by UM communications director Paula Short. UM is seeking to redesign the delivery of languages and values them as a way for students to study different cultures.

It is also intent on seeking faculty input, the president said.

“Our students will still be able to study Spanish, Japanese, Russian and the many other languages we offer at UM,” Bodnar said. “We are maintaining those offerings, but our current enrollment requires that we deliver them with fewer faculty. This also presents us with an opportunity to re-imagine the curriculum to ensure its continued quality.”

Short said Bodnar would refine recommendations and present them to the Board of Regents in May as informational items. She said the updated mission statement is the only item on which the regents will take action.

"Over the coming months," she said, the president would add detail about implementation to the plan in consultation with the interim and incoming provosts and deans.

Any recommendations that need to go through Faculty Senate review will go through appropriate committees in the fall, Short said. She also said reorganizations will take place on different timelines as programs and colleges determine logistics.

"In some cases, the faculty and deans may be ready to move forward immediately," Short said in an email. "In other cases, the timeline may be longer due to the need for refinement and clarity."

Members of the administration also have been stressing that students will be able to complete degrees. In an email to the campus last week, interim Provost Paul Kirgis reiterated the message.

"I write to assure you that you will be able to complete your program of study even if your program is slated for changes in the future. Please watch this short video of President Bodnar reaffirming UM's commitment to you and your degree completion," Kirgis said.

***

Any proposal from a UM administrator would raise questions among faculty, but in this case, some campus leaders also are seeing potential for positive outcomes, although with reservations.

Faculty Senator David Beck said some of the proposed changes will have significant effects on students, so UM needs to get the details right before any proposal goes to the Montana Board of Regents for approval.

He also had questions about how the "communities of excellence" would affect research. The communities outlined in the report are the following: Artistic Expression & Communication; Science & Technology; Business & Entrepreneurship; Environment & Sustainability; Health & Human Development; and Justice, Policy & Public Service.

"The communities of excellence seem to align strongly with professional schools in ways that may put the humanities and the social sciences into a position where they provide kind of the basic core coursework, but that doesn't necessarily support especially the scholarly endeavors of the faculty in those areas," Beck said.

So UM could fall back in scholarship in those areas: "When faculty in those programs are not focusing deeply on their own research, they're not bringing the latest knowledge of those fields into the classroom."

But Beck said UM must distinguish itself, and until now, it's done little to position itself for the future. So he sees the draft as a step in the right direction.

Faculty Senator Abhishek Chatterjee said his main concern remains student enrollment, and he wants to hear more about enrollment as a solution to UM's budget problems. He wants to see a vision for recovery.

"Without the enrollment issue, we wouldn't be here," said Chatterjee, in the department of political science. "So I think that should be front and center."

With a lot more thought and work and faculty involvement, he believes the Strategy for Distinction could be used as a way to attract students and families. With it, he said UM can show it's being innovative and trying ideas outside of the traditional mold for education.

"If it's done properly, I think this could turn the institution into a very attractive place for prospective students to have more of a cross-disciplinary, interdisciplinary, team-based education," Chatterjee said. " … But these things take time."

Clearly, the preliminary recommendations aren't right just yet, but they weren't meant to be. Faculty Senate Chair Bowman said the administration has stressed the recommendations won't be perfect right out of the gate, and the president and provosts have been soliciting feedback across campus. 

"That gives me hope that we can find a way through this that preservers what is wonderful and unique about the University of Montana and also addresses budget concerns that have been raised," Bowman said.

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University of Montana, higher education