The University of Montana's budget cuts are taking a toll on students in the College of Humanities and Sciences.
A biochemistry major was looking forward to a science-oriented writing course until it got axed. History and creative writing professors are trying to attract graduate students when other schools offer far more generous stipends. And one history major, junior Neil Tredray, wonders whether faculty absences will keep him from completing his required classes on time.
He is glad to have gotten into a Spanish section this semester. "They seem to fill up pretty quickly," he said. But registration is "a source of stress."
UM has spent years trying to lift declining enrollment and trim a $10 million structural deficit. Last fall, President Seth Bodnar’s administration unveiled $5 million in cuts, distributed among UM’s eight colleges. The steepest reductions, by both percentage and amount, were at the College of Humanities and Sciences, the university's largest school. Its budget is set to drop $3.9 million from $19.7 million in fiscal year 2018 to $15.8 million in 2021 — a 20% budget cut over three years.
The plan drew student and faculty protests at the time. Some professors raised concerns the flagship was losing its traditional focus on the liberal arts and on the path to becoming a vocational training school.
But one year after those cuts were announced and several years after enrollment and fiscal problems started, the College's interim dean, Jenny McNulty, and other administrators say they're still committed to supporting the humanities. The College has restructured advising to help students stay in school and graduate on time, and many students and faculty agree the college still delivers quality classes to engaged students.
Adjunct Spanish instructor Caroline Lonski said students see the value in the College's offerings, such as the chance to become bilingual. And she is inspired to teach them.
“This is not lip service, I am truly energized and excited by young people today " Lonski said.
But challenges are piling up for both students and faculty, and some say the College's programs are becoming less and less accessible.
“Some departments have been hit harder than others, but I think the humanities in particular seem to have suffered severely,” said longtime history professor Richard Drake.
The cuts were applied in a variety of ways, some less painful than others.
The Geography Department was moved to the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation; the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies program actually increased funding over three years due to a faculty position reclassification; but according to data from UM, most departments have either eliminated positions, hired replacements at lower cost, or scaled back their teaching time.
All told, UM says the faculty full-time-equivalents in the College, paid for by state-appropriated funds, went from 230 in the 2019 fiscal year to 216 in the 2020 fiscal year. However, the exact number is often in flux, and departures throughout the year may prompt new hiring.
Last year, 22 faculty members across the university agreed to retire by 2021, and UM avoided cutting tenured faculty.
A retirees list from UM showed no faculty retirements from the History department last year, but Drake and his colleagues say chairs and professorships left vacant in previous years remain empty.
“The implications are obviously very depressing,” Drake said. “We’re losing not only faculty lines, but also the courses that go with those lines, and so the curriculum is not as rich as it would be otherwise.”
Recent History department alum recalled a drop-off in classes being offered over the past few years. By now, junior Tredray wonders what could happen if professors take absences and aren’t replaced.
The College's McNulty and university spokesperson Paula Short say UM hires adjuncts to fill in for absent professors and to meet student demand. But the prospect of unavailable courses still worries Tredray.
”That’s a concern of mine,” he said. “I’m a non-traditional student, I’m 35, and I don’t want to delay my education any more.”
Completing the first two years of college in Florida, and living abroad in Cuba and Peru, had inspired Tredray to study Latin American history. He picked UM partially for its faculty and said that “the professors obviously care about their students.”
"(But) if classes aren’t there, that’s tough,” Tredray said.
Challenges like these extend beyond History.
“There's a little give and take in terms of what we're able to offer,” said Matt Semanoff, co-chair of the Modern and Classical Languages Department. “I think we have tended to be more conservative as we're working out our schedules in terms of the number of sections that are being offered for those courses, and then often work to add additional sections when we see that there is a demand.”
They’re not always able to meet that demand.
Tredray remembers that when he went to sign up for Lonski’s fall Spanish 201 class, he landed on a waiting list. He considers himself lucky to have checked his email at the right time and caught an open spot before someone else grabbed it.
Each of her past two years at UM, Lonski has taught introductory-level Spanish courses, “typically maxed out at 32 students,” she wrote in an email. This semester, the instructor is teaching one intermediate Spanish section with 25 students, and two other sections — one with 20 students and one with six Davidson Honors College students. The latter two sections regularly meet together for a 26-student morning class.
The national Association of Departments of Foreign Languages, she pointed out, recommends that introductory and intermediate class sizes generally not exceed 20 students. When classes are larger, “I have to be thinking of ways that I can move people through quickly, that gives me a chance to hear them speak — and that can be a real challenge.”
At the start of class late last month, Lonski passed out colored slips with questions for her students to ask each other in Spanish. “Do you think you’ll get married someday?” “Do you know who you would like to marry?” “Did your parents discipline you a lot?” “What were your usual punishments?”
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Then, it was time to get up, find a partner and start practicing. Lonski kept everyone participating, swooping in on students who stood alone for too long. Standing over a sedentary knot of students, Lonski nodded towards another one. “See how much courage she has,” she said in Spanish. “She’s moving through the class, speaking with a lot of people.”
While some students warmed to the exercise faster than others, she’s happy with the progress they’re making. “By now they will pretty much speak with everybody at this point in the semester, and they’ve gotten comfortable making mistakes.”
Teaching a class this large “just takes a lot of thinking of how you can try and make sure you’re hitting everybody,” she said. And that takes time — more than what Lonski said she is paid for.
In an email, she wrote, “in order for me to do a job that I feel proud of and that my students deserve, it means that I must donate 10-25 hours per week depending on the semester; this is not atypical for a faculty member in our department.”
At least for Lonski, unpaid overtime isn’t a grievance — it’s a sign of UM’s underlying strength. “Many of us are working well beyond what we are compensated for because we care so much about providing our students with an excellent education during this time of transition and economic hardship.”
According to data provided by spokesperson Short, undergraduate enrollment in the college dropped from 4,347 in fall 2013 to 3,231 this semester. Across the country, meanwhile, the liberal arts’ place in education has drawn intense debate, with elected officials on both sides of the aisle questioning the value of humanities degrees, and academics, students and private employers coming to their defense.
Despite the recent cuts, UM President Bodnar has repeatedly praised the humanities and social sciences, saying they provide vital abilities in a fast-changing world. In his State of the University address this past August, Bodnar said “we must redouble our efforts to nurture in (students) the creativity, the innovation, the critical-thinking abilities they need to be tomorrow-proof and to succeed in their fifth and sixth and seventh jobs.”
The university is already generating attractive graduates. For example, UM noted in 2017 that an estimated 70% of UM students who want to become doctors, dentists, veterinarians, and physician assistants were accepted into those professional programs compared to 40% nationally.
Months away from graduation, senior Liz Lorentz already sees demand for the liberal arts mind-set.
She’s wrapping up a biochemistry major this year and plans to apply to graduate school. “I've talked to professors from other universities, and they all have this common idea that if you go to a liberal arts school to get a non-liberal arts degree, you come out with a more unique perspective of (the) humanities and a more personable touch to these fact-driven topics.”
The budget cuts have dulled that edge, she said. For instance, Lorentz and her classmates had looked forward to taking a course called “Ethics and Writing in the Sciences."
But the chemistry professor who taught it retired at the end of last year and hasn’t been replaced, leaving chemistry students with general ethics and writing courses as their only options. “That was disappointing,” she said.
Lorentz and her classmates have tried to compensate by reviving the university’s Chemistry Club. And the Flathead High School graduate made clear that overall, the university has served her well — in part by making her better-rounded than other schools might.
“MSU is like, ‘This is what you need to know, I'm gonna give it to you, you're gonna learn it, and then you're gonna go to the next thing,’ while Montana spends a lot of time with, ‘This is what you need to know, how do you think that connects with other things?...Where do think this can move from here?’” she said, comparing UM to Montana State University in Bozeman.
Even as the budget cuts bite, the College is growing in places and adapting to better connect with students, said Dean McNulty.
“We're really trying to meet students' needs across the board,” she told the Missoulian last week. “It is true that we will be decreasing our FTEs slightly, but you have to remember we are a large college with 20-so departments in it.” This year, she said, the college plans to hire 11 tenure-track faculty members across nine departments and a lecturer in Chemistry.
UM has also just completed a four-year renovation of the College’s home, Eck Hall, funded by an $8.6 million donation from Dennis and Gretchen Eck to their alma mater. McNulty’s especially keen on the new frosted-glass-walled academic advising center that greets students as soon as they walk in the front doors.
In 2018, the College replaced department-by-department advising with a centralized academic adviser position. That, said McNulty, “allowed us to give a professional adviser to every one of our students.”
Both she and spokesperson Short said advising can help students avoid class shortages and complete their degree work on time. “One of the things advisers really try to help students with is, ‘How do you forecast into next term? What are you taking this term?’” Short said.
“If we know that there's going to be a pinch point of, ‘There's a class that you have to have, let's get you into that one first and let's build your schedule around it,' and I think that's been really helpful.’”
McNulty treats some students’ concerns with skepticism. Not all of the issues students raise are new, said the dean, who’s spent a decade in the Dean’s office and recently stepped up as the interim leader. “I think since the beginning of time, students say that there's not enough sections,” she said with a laugh.
However much the cuts have worsened that complaint, she stressed that “we’re really trying to meet students' needs across the board.”
The History department’s Drake has a broad clear-eyed take on these challenges. The study of the humanities stretches back centuries, he pointed out.
And UM has done its part to advance that field. Its faculty helped nurture creative writing in the West, for instance, and UM students have led the nation in Udall Scholarships for leadership in Public Service.
“We are victimized here by a lack of fervor in promoting a terrific product,” Drake said. “I would like to see a much more energetic defense of the humanities.”
Lonski, the Spanish instructor, is happy to do her part for that defense.
“I would love to invite anybody to come” to class, she said. “I think once people had an idea of what goes on at this university in any classroom, not just mine ... and just how much talent we have here, I think we would be very competitive.”