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UM main hall stockimage (MIS)

The University of Montana's main hall. 

Desk phones are going the way of typewriters and fountain pens at the University of Montana – due to recent budget cuts.

Come July 1, faculty in the History Department will not have their own office telephones, said Diane Rapp, who will have the only phone line in the department.

"I'm going to have to buy those pink message pads again," said Rapp, department administrator.

On second thought, she said, she'll probably use scrap paper to keep down costs – or send email. She estimates the department will cut 10 lines, and at $30 a month apiece, the annual savings is a chunk: $3,600.

Earlier this month, Dean Chris Comer said Main Hall is asking the College of Humanities and Sciences to make additional budget cuts he considers "on the high side, scary high," and amount to "several million dollars." Other areas on campus are trimming as well, and telephones and copiers are on the chopping block.

With the ubiquity of cell phones, availability of other technology, and previous budget crunches, the trend in retiring desk phones isn't new, according to Matt Riley, chief information officer for UM. With the campus pinching pennies, he's anticipating another wave of phone cuts this year.

The elimination saves individual departments money because they don't have to pay for the services, he said. But he said it doesn't help IT or the bottom line at UM.

"It's the revenue that creates the operational budget for IT," Riley said.

So IT has to find those dollars elsewhere, he said – from other university sources.

***

At UM, faculty are promised a desk and a phone in their collective bargaining agreement, said Stephen Lodmell, a professor in the biochemistry program. Since the agreement was crafted, though, things have changed.

"Today, it's hard to find somebody who doesn't have a cell phone in their pocket," he said.

At his most recent departmental meeting, the associate dean of the Division of Biological Sciences requested that faculty identify phones and computer ports that could be removed, Lodmell said. He said the request didn't lead to revolt because functionally, most people have cell phones.

At the same time, the news wasn't easy to digest.

"It's a little depressing because it seems like a phone is a pretty basic thing, and it doesn't seem like it's very expensive. But in a large department like ours, it certainly adds up," he said.

Lodmell plans to keep a phone line in his lab for safety reasons, but he'll have to find ways to pay for it himself using, say, indirect costs from grants.

He questioned the efficiency of the funding structure on campus for things like internet ports in particular. The infrastructure and wiring exist, yet one department pays another one for the service.

"It just seems a little bit silly that it's not just provided, and then we don't have to pay people to administer the bills," he said. 

***

To date, the number of phones on campus is some 3,000, down from 4,750 at its peak in 2003, Riley said.

"Years ago, we had a big drop when we went away from having phones in every dorm room," he said. "... That was a big deal a long time ago."

The campus opted to keep emergency phones in public areas like on residence hall floors, but it removed the ones in dorm rooms. This year, he's anticipating another drop in the number of phones.

The cut saves money for a department, but not for the campus as a whole, he said. It's an issue he said every campus with an IT department is facing.

When people figure out they can opt out of charges for phones and network ports and use wireless services instead, he said, IT loses revenue. Since IT doesn't earn money from wireless services, Riley must find funds from other university sources.

"When people cut down on those services, that doubles over on our operational budget," he said.

***

The loss of desk phones might not be great for many students – at least those already enrolled and on campus.

Elizabeth Engebretson, vice president for the Associated Students of the University of Montana, said students aren't quick to use phones to call their teachers.

"I've never called one of my professors," she said. "I always email them – or show up in their office."

Rapp and Lodmell agreed email is the main avenue of communication between students and faculty. Engebretson said she would feel like she's intruding on a professor's personal life if she were to call a cell phone, but email is efficient for herself and other students.

"I have some fantastic professors, and they're always really quick about emailing me, even on weekends," said Engebretson, a political science major with a minor in military science.

In recent years, the administration has been placing more recruitment responsibilities on the shoulders of faculty members, and if that requires phone calls to prospective students, some teachers pay out of their own pockets.

According to Riley, only a handful of people on campus receive reimbursements from UM for using their cell phones.

***

As departments again tighten budgets, discarded phones may go in the garbage if they're old, and if they're newer, IT will trade them in for updated models from vendors, Riley said.

He arrived at UM three years ago, and he said it wasn't as far along in losing desk phones as he would have predicted, possibly because the network "wasn't up to snuff."

Now, he said, demand on the network is higher than ever.

"The amount of wireless users on our network is sort of astounding," Riley said. "We'll see that when we plan for wireless use, we'll have to plan in the area of over 50,000 devices simultaneously connected to our network."

At the same time, the budget is shrinking. Riley estimated the total budget for IT at some $10 million, down 12 to 14 percent compared to five years ago.

"I always tell my team when I look across the nation, this is the best bang for the buck IT that you get anywhere," he said. "We cover all bases and have an incredible amount of opportunity for our students and faculty with one of the smallest operations that you'll see."

***

In the History Department, Rapp said a veteran professor made her feel better when he told her he'd seen the phones disappear and reappear a couple times over the decades in previous budget shortfalls.

The campus will come out on the other side again, she said, and in the meantime, the phones will go, at least for the time being.

"We thought this would be the least painful thing to cut," Rapp said. "It was either that or our photocopier."

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