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University of Montana

The University of Montana campus

For the last two weeks, a University of Montana task force has been ranking all of the university's programs in an effort to decide what to invest in and what might be eliminated as UM grapples with an enrollment drop and budget shortfall.

But the underlying reports generated on each program, as well as the actual votes of the task force examining them, were kept secret to anyone who didn't have a university password.

On Tuesday that changed when, responding to complaints by the Missoulian and others, the University of Montana posted documents on its prioritization process on a public website: umt.edu/apasp/public.

The website includes reports about academic and administrative units, reviewer comments, and task force votes. UM Communications Director Paula Short said Tuesday that 400 unit reports and 1,200 reviewer reports are posted.

"This is a new process and undertaking, and with the benefit of hindsight, we should have posted all data files right away," Short said. "We are now working to make all of the documents associated with (the prioritization process) available to anyone. As (UM President Sheila Stearns) says, we are evolving in our process."

Earlier this year, UM launched a project to set campus priorities for investment and disinvestment. The task force the university appointed put programs into one of four categories: priority for development and growth, consider for development and/or modification, priority for substantial modification, or insufficient evidence.

After the task force wrapped up its voting sessions last week, members decided against broadly releasing details of their work.

“It has no value for people outside of the university community,” Scott Whittenburg, vice president for research and creative scholarship, said at the time.

Professor Paul Haber, another task force member, had pushed for everything to be posted online for public review.

“It’s a public institution. I think it’s the law actually. That’s called transparency,” he said.

UM legal counsel Lucy France had said members of the public could make individual public information requests if they wanted to see reports or votes, which could have subjected the reports to a lengthy review process.

“There’s no legal requirement that it has to be instantaneously available,” she said at the time.

The task force's lack of transparency generated multiple objections. When it refused to release vote totals at its first meeting, the student newspaper, the Kaimin, objected and got the votes. When the task force wrapped up its work and decided not to release the underlying documents and votes to the public, the Missoulian objected and university leadership changed course.

But until Tuesday, the reports on units were available only to people with campus IDs and passwords, not to members of the public, whose taxes support the university system.

Short said making the information broadly available took time. The campus typically uses a system called "Box," similar to DropBox, for sharing large files internally. When UM officials realized they should make the documents accessible to the public, she said they found their system for internal users didn't work well for external parties.

"When we realized that sharing outside of the organization using this method was problematic, we used a data repository website per the direction of Chief Information Officer Matt Riley," Short said in an email.

The task force will be making recommendations to Stearns by the end of November, and governing bodies will be holding public meetings in December to respond to outcomes.

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