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This is a comment on the recent guest column by Lewis Schneller, “UM should downsize administration before slashing academic programs” (Nov. 21). Schneller did not provide any data to support his assumptions, and his well-intended piece illustrates a form of “knee-jerkism” that all too often becomes part of the “conventional wisdom.” When I was growing up in Montana, for decades the knee-jerk reaction every time the state faced a budget crisis was to eliminate one of the units of the university system. That was put to rest in the 1970s, thanks to the intervention of U.S. Sen. Mike Mansfield.

Still haunting faculty, students and the public wherever colleges and universities are located is the knee-jerkism based on an unexamined assumption that such institutions are inevitably top-heavy with administrators. This may or may not be true, but it is testable.

As an out-of-the-loop retiree, I do not have data on faculty-administration ratios for the various parts of the Montana University System, or how they compare on that measure with their regional and national peers, so I, too, will speak generally — with perhaps more relevant experience.

Often university administrative positions increase in response to state and federal reporting requirements, student needs (such as counseling) beyond the classroom, economic development activities in partnership with communities and states, an increase in maintenance of buildings and grounds, the pressing needs (in light of inadequate state funding) for staff to raise philanthropic money and for management of research projects as the faculty matures in its ability to attract such external support. There are other things I could mention, but I have space limitations. Which of these functions would Schneller cripple or eliminate?

Another need — a critical one — for a university facing enrollment decline is to increase and improve administrative staff assigned to student recruitment, admission and retention. I understand that the University of Montana, for example, has had significantly fewer staff in this area than has Montana State University over the past decade. Perhaps the results are obvious.

I have complete confidence in UM President Seth Bodnar and his colleagues to do the right thing to get us through this crisis.

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Dr. Lawrence K. Pettit is a University of Montana UM alumnus, and was the first Montana commissioner of higher education. Later he served as a university system chancellor in Texas, president of a multi-campus university in Illinois and president of a public university in Pennsylvania He is retired and lives in Helena.

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