Some of the University of Montana programs given preliminary rankings as top priorities for growth are also some of UM's most costly to teach.
The faculty cost for each degree in undergraduate music, for instance, is $50,000, according to data collected to set program priorities. Nonetheless, UM's program review task force voted to rank music as a top priority for growth.
The faculty cost for a degree for undergraduate media arts is just $9,100, according to the same data. There, growth has been explosive, according to the program's report. Yet the media arts undergraduate program isn't ranked as a top priority for future investment.
To be sure, the process to set priorities is far from over, and many steps remain, including official recommendations from the task force.
Also, faculty cost per degree, which is determined by taking the annual tenured and tenure-track faculty costs and dividing by the average number of degrees, is only one limited way to measure a program. It doesn't take into account research productivity or faculty who, for example, teach a required English class to students who won't ever become English majors.
But a key driver of the prioritization project is the flagship's lopsided budget, which is considered overly heavy with personnel.
With cuts to tenured faculty potentially on the table, the stakes are high. But a clear picture of how UM can save money has yet to emerge.
"It just happened too fast," said Emily Stone, department chair of math.
She said it's apparent that UM could make cuts but not end up saving money. "If you look at what they're going to cut, it's not adding up. So something else is going to have to be done. Everybody knows that."
Brad Allen, director of the School of Art, agreed the timeline was fast, and he praised the task force for evaluating units "on an impossible timeline." But he said the process hasn't been designed to measure efficiency and productivity, so results could lead to "a smaller version of UM, not a better one."
"This process was born out of an enrollment crisis," Allen said in an email. "We should be searching for cost savings, especially considering faculty and staff will lose their jobs.
"We should take every step possible to understand a unit's efficiency alongside its scale — alongside production, service, and alignment with the strategic plan."
Mathematics was also voted a top priority for growth, and it also has a high faculty cost per degree, about $76,000.
Stone, though, said that's a program where faculty teach many general education courses for many different majors, and unless professors in other programs want to start teaching math, it's going to remain a priority for UM.
Indeed, each faculty FTE (full time equivalent) in math teaches on average 402 student credit hours a year of general education, according to another measure identified in unit reports. That's a chunk more than the 85 general ed student credit hours taught in undergraduate music, whose professors likely count more one-on-one classes with majors as well. (Dean Stephen Kalm could not be reached for comment via voicemail Tuesday.)
As for math, UM recently joined an initiative called Complete College America that aims to help students graduate and take less time doing so, and it means faculty in math are going to be teaching some courses that are part of a new program, Stone said.
"I have told (the provost) from the get-go that they can't cut our resources ... and ask us to develop a new program. It's like flogging a dead horse," said Stone, who noted resources have already been reduced.
She figured the stable enrollment in the undergraduate degree is another reason math is rated tops for growth at this point.
At least by the measure of faculty cost per degree, some of the programs that weren't voted as top priorities for growth are more affordable.
The faculty cost per degree in health and human performance is $13,800, and it has counted a steady enrollment since 2010, according to its report.
The faculty cost per degree is $9,400 in undergraduate sociology.
President Sheila Stearns will ultimately make decisions intended to redirect the flagship.
A task force is slated to deliver recommendations to her Thursday, and next month, faculty, staff and students will weigh in. If necessary, the Montana Board of Regents will consider major changes.
"The point is not so much budget, but rather best use of finite resources to meet students’ and Montana’s needs," Stearns said in an email.
In this regard, she said "sustainability" is the key factor she'll use to evaluate recommendations.
"I think the general lens most reviewers use, as I will in the next couple weeks, is the sustainability of good programs in their current form," Stearns said.
Some programs may cost more, but they also may have many students, graduates, and long waiting lists, she said. On the other hand, she said some programs, "expensive or not, may be discontinued if the data show they aren’t sustainable in their current form." And she said some essential programs may require restructuring to achieve savings.
Provost Beverly Edmond, who chaired the task force on prioritization, said efficiency and productivity were front and center for those evaluating programs. At the same time, she said it's more challenging to quantify those issues compared to, for example, graduation rates or number of publications.
However, Edmond also said sustainability is key, and UM isn't just looking at places that need cuts but for areas that need support.
"What has driven this in my mind is the ability to provide adequate resources to those programs that, in many instances, have been starved of the resources they need to sustain themselves," Edmond said.
Stearns has noted that the prioritization process is just one of several approaches UM is taking to get its budget in order and push its spending on personnel down closer to 75 percent of its operating budget from the current nearly 90 percent.
Estimating the faculty cost of a degree is a crude measure of a program and an impossible way on its own to account for the value to UM and Montana. Somewhere along the way, though, at least some faculty closely watching the process want productivity measures to be closely considered.
Allen, in the School of Art, is among those calling for an outcome that takes efficiency into account and dispenses with "sacred cows." UM would be "wise to protect some of the existing units that carry mid-level majors numbers, that see students through to graduation, but do it with modest resources and constant innovation."
"If ever there was a time to reimagine what the institution values, which units echo the identity of our mission, it is now," Allen said.
|Units||Priority Category||T/TT Faculty||Faculty personnel $||Degrees 5YA||SCH for Gen Ed/TT/T Faculty, 5YA||Faculty cost/degree||Degrees per TT/T Faculty|
|Music, UG, 147||1||19.9||1,506,649||30.2||85||$49,889.04||1.51758794|
|Environmental Studies, UG, 41||1||3.6||609286||36||166.9||$16,924.61||10|
|Biology, UG, 28||1||17.1||3,078,343||75.4||204.6||$40,826.83||4.409356725|
|Mathematics, UG, 52||1||15.6||1,927,201||25.2||402||$76,476.23||1.615384615|
|Communication Studies, UG, 22||1||5.6||748718||77.4||248.4||$9,673.36||13.82142857|
|Social Work, UG, 139||2||2.9||973,756||61.2||71.8||$15,911.05||21.10344828|
|Health and Human Performance, UG, 103||2||9.1||1,291,933||93.8||125.4||$13,773.27||10.30769231|
|Sociology, UG, 82||2||6.1||729,271||77.8||318||$9,373.66||12.75409836|
|English, UG, 36||2||12.7||2,035,113||75.8||191.8||$26,848.46||5.968503937|
|Media Arts, UG, 145||2||5.4||436,136||48||178.9||$9,086.17||8.888888889|
|Art, UG, 142||2||10.4||899,501||39.6||237.3||$22,714.67||3.807692308|
|History, UG, 50||2||9||1,083,025||56.2||374.2||$19,270.91||6.244444444|
|Accounting, UG, 190||2||8.1||1,239,033||56.4||15.3||$21,968.67||6.962962963|
|Management and Entrepreneurship, UG, 199||2||7.3||1,435,926||90.2||195.5||$15,919.36||12.35616438|
|Ecosystems Sciences and Restoration, UG, 106||2||7.5||836,526||9.4||71.6||$88,992.13||1.253333333|
|Parks, Tourism and Recreation Management, UG, 121||2||4.5||495,312||24.2||54.5||$20,467.44||5.377777778|