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UM Faculty Hear University's Plan To Cut 51 Positions

University of Montana President Seth Bodnar addresses the faculty senate about UM's preliminary plans to cut 51.5 faculty positions due to declining enrollment, April 17, 2018.
Eric Whitney
University of Montana President Seth Bodnar addresses the faculty senate about UM's preliminary plans to cut 51.5 faculty positions due to declining enrollment, April 17, 2018.

Faculty at the University of Montana had their first opportunity to give feedback on the new preliminary plan University administrators released this morning that suggests cutting more than 50 faculty positions.

University President Seth Bodnar spent nearly an hour presenting the administration’s proposal to the faculty senate this afternoon. Nearly 300 people filled the Music Recital Hall on campus for that. Faculty senate members then spent almost as long asking questions and criticizing the plan.

Afterwards, Faculty Senate Chair Mary-Ann Sontag Bowman, an associate professor in the School of Social Work said she’s still digesting the size of the proposed faculty reduction.

"I know for myself, that as soon as I saw that, I just felt overwhelmed with just sorrow for what families and colleagues are dealing with tonight. The human impact of that is big. And faculty senators, I think while we both understand the need to make reductions, also these are our colleagues and I don't know how to say it any other way except that I feel so sad that this is necessary," she said.

Plans to potentially re-structure the University have been in the works for at least two years, pre-dating President Bodnar’s hiring last October. There have been opportunities for faculty, staff and students to give input.

Sontag Bowman says she thinks most faculty agree that something has to be done to restore the University to a sound financial footing, but she doesn’t sense agreement among faculty that big staff cuts are necessary.

History Professor Michael Mayer, a member of the faculty senate, says his take is that there is acceptance that at least some faculty reductions are needed.

"Absolutely. Everybody understands that," Mayer said. "The question is: How do they come? And the question is: Who is involved in making those decisions?"

University President Bodnar emphasized that the recommendations released this morning are both preliminary and the result of collaboration with faculty, staff and students. At this point the plan does not call for forced faculty cuts, but rather the expectation that more than 50 faculty positions can be shed through attrition, like retirements or other staff departures, over the course of three years.

Mayer is skeptical. He says the administration’s proposal appears to be motivated more by the administration’s desire for expediency in solving the University’s financial woes than its stated goal of re-shaping the University into a school of distinction where students are prepared for a challenging future. Mayer says administrators relying on attrition to reduce faculty size is proof, because it would decimate UM’s History Department.

"They’re planning on two attritions. They're counting on two of my most senior colleagues — the only two more senior than I am —  retiring at some point. Well first of all, they may not. And second, if that is in fact what happens and they are not replaced, our curriculum will be devastated, we will offer no European history," Mayer says.

For the next two weeks, University administrators are asking for faculty and public feedback on the recommendations for the University’s future released today . Then, they’ll present their final plan to the state board of regents in late May, which Faculty Senate Chair Mary-Ann Sontag Bowman expects the regents to approve. And if that happens, Sontag-Bowman says, she doesn’t expect faculty cuts to begin right away, or at all, necessarily beyond the process of attrition.

"The process by which any reductions that are going to happen that are not sort of natural through attrition or departures, voluntary departures; that process will be triggered in the fall. And so it will be a long process," she says.

Some faculty members Tuesday expressed concerns that the administration is not following proper procedures for eliminating faculty positions, which could land the University in hot water with the faculty union. Sontag Bowman says she thinks the administration has been careful to adhere to collective bargaining agreements.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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