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University of Montana campus, Missoula

University of Montana campus

Can we just be direct about what is unfolding at the University of Montana? And can we agree to stop using nice-sounding spin in an effort to paint an unpleasant situation as a welcome development? Can we find the courage to describe the devastating cuts at UM not as "a strategy for distinction" or a policy of aligning "instructional resources with the size of our student body," but call them out for what they are, namely, a significant cut to the university's core humanities and social science offerings?

For the last 50 years, this has been my university: I studied at UM, I worked at UM, I played for the Griz football team, and my kids also studied at this wonderful university. In one word, my family and I are proud members of the Griz Nation. We fully understand the need to maintain a balanced budget and a healthy financial future for our university, but piling cuts and more cuts onto academic programs without generating any new revenue is not the solution to the problems we have been confronting at UM for the past seven years.

The new cuts to the curriculum will only worsen the enrollment and fiscal challenges confronting the University, making it impossible for some departments to offer legitimate degrees to students. When the administration demands the elimination of star-power faculty members, who attract students to their departments, how can Main Hall expect the affected academic units to survive in any recognizable way? These drastic measures will make it impossible for many programs to recruit any more students, given that it is the nationally recognized programs and faculty who attract and retain students.

Quality teaching and research are essential to the very idea of higher education. Cutting or reducing the teaching capabilities of academic programs without any evaluation of the quality of their faculty, and relying on arbitrary metrics to do so, accomplishes nothing. It just dismantles the curriculum, the very thing that distinguishes our university. These cuts will reduce the once-mighty state flagship to a technical college with no attraction for anyone seeking knowledge of arts, languages, literature, histories and other areas of academic inquiry. 

What are the principal responsibilities of a university administration? Its first responsibility is to maintain a healthy budget by increasing the number of resident and non-resident students. The second responsibility of the UM administration is to repair the damage the university has sustained in the last seven years by reassuring its students and faculty that the era of decline and cuts has come to an end and a new period of expansion and prosperity is about to commence. Third, the administration needs to adopt a culture of transparency, opening its decision-making process, including all its meetings to public participation and scrutiny. Fourth, UM needs to diversify its sources of revenue. Aside from the need to increase student enrollment, the university has to invest in research and graduate studies, an area in which UM had until recently enjoyed some advantage over Montana State University-Bozeman. Finally, if UM is forced to introduce any cuts, the administration needs to start the process by applying the first cuts to itself.

The central problem confronting UM is not the inability of its faculty members to fulfill their obligations, but rather the failure of its administration to generate the necessary revenue to balance the university's budget. Before applying any cuts to academic programs, the UM administration has to initiate a thorough evaluation of all top administrative positions with the ultimate goal of downsizing itself and eliminating all personnel whose absence will not leave any adverse impact on UM and its academic mission.

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Lewis Schneller of Missoula is a University of Montana alumnus and a longtime community and political activist. 

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