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University of Montana eyes cutting adjuncts
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University of Montana eyes cutting adjuncts

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The University of Montana campus

The University of Montana campus in Missoula is pictured in this file photo.

The University of Montana is working to trim faculty and class offerings ahead of an uncertain fall semester, with announcements coming as soon as next week on who will be offered a job in the fall.

UM administrators are looking at each course taught by non-tenure-track faculty to see if there is sufficient student demand to continue offering it, and whether it can be reassigned to tenure-track professors.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench into planning for the next academic year as universities across the country monitor whether students are able, or even willing, to return to in-person classes.

Among the factors that are still big unknowns are a possible cold-weather resurgence of the virus, students’ willingness to come to crowded campuses far from home, and the economic effect on students trying to find ways to afford tuition and living expenses.

UM spokesperson Paula Short said UM did not have a set number of people it was trying to cut, but rather was looking at how to deliver all the necessary classes as efficiently as possible, and that some non-tenure-track faculty would still be necessary.

Short said faculty staffing plans UM developed over the past four years to meet the enrollment-driven budget crunch, scheduled to go into effect in fiscal year 2021, would also be a factor in decision making.

Non-tenure-track faculty are largely made up of adjunct professors — who focus primarily on teaching classes, rather than research or creative scholarship — and are generally hired on a semester-by-semester basis, with some annual appointments.

Provost Jon Harbor, who has the ultimate authority over academic hiring decisions at UM, said that he and deans of each college are working on a data-driven approach to decide which faculty will need to be rehired by looking at course enrollment trends of the past two years.

“Every year we look at courses and personnel to make decisions about which adjunct faculty to re-hire for the next academic year, and to decide what courses our tenured and tenure track faculty will teach,” Harbor wrote in an email. “It is our responsibility as stewards of state funding and student tuition to ensure that we are using our resources as effectively as possible. We are doing this now so that our adjunct faculty will know well ahead of time if they will be re-hired for this coming year, and what they will be teaching.”

Part of UM’s plans to trim faculty spending and reorganize departments by 2021 was to cut a net $700,000 in non-tenure-track faculty, according to information on the provost’s website, among other changes.

The analysis could also lead to multiple sections of a class being consolidated should lower enrollment allow it. It wasn't clear Monday if any courses would be outright canceled.

UM also is analyzing sabbaticals — semester-long or year-long paid time off allowed to tenured faculty for pursuing research or creative study related to their field. Montana State University in Bozeman announced earlier this year it was suspending all sabbaticals for the coming academic year.

However UM has not made such an announcement, and instead asked faculty scheduled for a sabbatical to submit a form indicating whether they would be willing or able to defer their plans for another year, but so far has not made deferment mandatory.

Because of a Montana University System-wide hiring freeze, any adjunct faculty who are ultimately found to be necessary and offered contracts next semester will need to go through a full approval process through the state’s higher education office, if the freeze is still in effect come August.

It is still unclear exactly how enrollment at UM, which for undergraduates has slid more than 40% in the past decade, will be affected this fall. UM’s admission and recruitment teams have been overhauled in the last two years, and with a recent investment and strategy shake-up implemented by UM’s enrollment chief, Cathy Cole, 2020 could have brought welcome news for UM’s student count. But with the pandemic, everything is up in the air during the time most students are making final plans on where, or if, to attend college.

UM spokesperson Paula Short said the plans the provost is using to make decisions on which adjuncts can be let go aren’t currently being influenced by new student enrollment expectations since there are so many unknowns.

In an email to faculty sent last week, Harbor said he wanted all faculty to know the plans for fall by the end of the spring semester, which ends May 9.

"Deans have started working on these plans and will ask department chairs/directors to help them refine them over the coming weeks," he wrote. "I will be asking deans and department chairs/directors to have conversations with all instructional faculty, including non-tenurable faculty, before the end of spring semester to let them know about decisions for fall 2020."

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