News

Monday, May 22, 2017

Buyouts offered to 8 percent of UM full-time faculty

Posted By on Mon, May 22, 2017 at 9:35 AM

Around 50 veteran professors at the University of Montana have been offered early retirement incentives as the university prepares for another round of downsizing.

The figure is substantially lower than the 80-100 buyout target state officials floated in April while securing a $2 million legislative earmark to offset "faculty termination costs." Buyouts alone seem unlikely to achieve the university's overall staff reduction goals.

Offers are limited to full-time, tenured faculty who are at least 65 years old and are already eligible to retire. Of the university's 613 full-time faculty, 48 qualify for the incentive, communications director Paula Short says.

That's about 8 percent of full-time faculty.
PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
Interim President Sheila Stearns acknowledged the program's limited scope in a campus email last week, writing that the university must follow direction from state higher education officials "who have identified the finite financial resources for us to address our long-term financial obligations and the associated fiscal impacts of our current student:faculty ratio."

The plan released May 12 does not target faculty in specific departments, as the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education had previously suggested would be necessary. Such a scenario would have been more contentious on campus.

In addition to standard sick leave payouts, professors who accept the offer will receive a lump sum payment equal to half of their current salary, according to a copy of the letter posted to the university's website. Their employment will end on July 17.

State officials put typical "termination costs" for veteran faculty at $25,000. UM's associate vice president for human resources, Terri Phillips, says she has not calculated the cost if all 48 professors take the incentive. Short says the package was developed with cost in mind.

Eligible faculty must submit a preliminary response to the offer by May 31.

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Thursday, May 11, 2017

Creationist researcher suing National Park Service because it won't let him study Grand Canyon rocks

Posted By on Thu, May 11, 2017 at 2:57 PM

In case the drawing of Jesus riding a T. rex on a paddleboard in Glacial Lake Missoula on today's Indy cover wasn't enough of a hint, this week's feature is about creationists. Last month, some locals invited Kentucky-based ministry Answers in Genesis to put on a creation conference at the University of Montana. It drew more than 1,000 people.

Turns out that as our story went to press, the Phoenix New Times reported that one of AiG's Missoula speakers, creation scientist Andrew Snelling, is suing the U.S. Department of the Interior for religious discrimination because National Park Service officials denied his research application in Grand Canyon National Park.

Snelling wants to collect rocks from the park to use for his work.
WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Wikimedia Commons
The Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom filed the lawsuit on Tuesday, alleging the NPS violated his First Amendment rights to free speech and religious freedom, his Fifth Amendment rights to due process and equal protection, and the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 2000, the New Times reports. The complaint also cites a May executive order by President Trump on religious freedom.

Here's the best part, from New Times:
In the federal complaint filed on Tuesday, ADF uses several key e-mails by scientists who put their feelings in writing to demonstrate the bias Snelling says he encountered.

"It is difficult to review such an outlandish proposal," Ron Blakely of Northern Arizona University told NPS officials in 2014, when he was asked for his opinion about Snelling's proposal. 

Click here to read the full story. And check out the Indy's cover story, "Muddy the Waters: Ken Ham, Greg Gianforte, and the creationist assault on science in Montana," too.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

UM buyouts a 'win-win-win?' Not so fast.

Posted By on Wed, Apr 26, 2017 at 11:09 AM

Any buyouts offered to University of Montana faculty and staff will likely be limited to those whose academic programs or departments are targeted for downsizing, the Montana University System’s human resources director says.

Such an approach could put senior and junior faculty at odds, and may strain a process that faculty union leaders hoped could offer an alternative to mass layoffs as UM prepares to cut its budget by millions over the next two years.

“It gets more sensitive the more specific the buyout becomes,” says University Faculty Association spokesperson Lee Banville. “How do you not turn this into, ‘Senior faculty retire now or junior faculty lose their jobs,’ which could be a very destructive conversation to have.”

UM President Sheila Stearns and Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian began discussing buyout options just weeks after Stearns took over as interim president in December, as the Indy first reported. The proposal gained momentum last week when university system officials made a deal with the governor’s office and lawmakers to earmark $2 million from 9-1-1 dispatch funds to cover “faculty termination costs” at UM.

MUS spokesperson Kevin McRae described the proposal, which cleared the Senate, as a potential “win-win-win,” the Missoulian reported.

It could just as easily become a lose-lose.

McRae tells the Indy that for early retirement incentives to be effective, they must align closely with the university’s downsizing goals, which Stearns has signaled will target specific academic offerings and services. Otherwise, he says, “you lose the whole point of what this is about.”
PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
That means only faculty in certain academic programs and support staff in certain sectors would receive buyout offers.

“That’s indeed a question for the university and I don’t think they’ve gotten there yet, but to me, I think it has to be department by department,” McRae says.

McRae is part of a group of MUS and UM administrators who are hammering out legal and logistical questions related to the proposal, dubbed the Voluntary Early Retirement Incentive Program, or VERIP. (A separate UM working group administered an anonymous survey to faculty and staff last month.) He says the commissioner’s office and Stearns’ staff are working as “one big team” on the project. UM Communications Director Paula Short says the team’s discussions are still in "very early stages."

Administrators have not yet approached the University Faculty Association about details of a proposal. But a highly “strategic” incentive package is a far cry from the typical, broad-based approach that faculty union officials assumed would take place, in which buyouts are offered to any faculty or staff members who meet age or employment criteria. Contacted last week, UFA President Paul Haber told the Indy his sense is that offers would not target specific areas on campus.

If they did, “We would certainly look at it very hard,” Haber wrote in an email.
A timeline announced by Stearns this spring calls for program “prioritization” over the summer, with cuts to be recommended in September. McRae says no buyout offers would be made until that analysis is complete.

Even if the buyout proposal proves unworkable, or finds few takers, UM would still be able to use the $2 million legislative earmark to help pay costs associated with layoffs. State employees are entitled to a sick leave payout upon termination, which McRae says can cost more than $25,000 for a veteran faculty member.

The state allocation could pay costs associated with eliminating approximately 80 positions, but McRae says the $2 million figure was reached without a particular layoff target in mind. And, in fact, the amount may not be enough.

“It will help substantially. Whether it will cover it all, we don’t know,” McRae says.
Montana universities are poised to absorb a $4.7 million cut for each of the next two years. They will also not receive millions in inflationary adjustments. Legislators, however, have been more willing to ante up state funds that they know will be used to reduce costs at UM, McRae says.

“They expect to see action,” he says. “Legislators see this will go toward action.”

But on Wednesday, even that was uncertain. The bill containing the legislative earmark, Senate Bill 294, appeared to be taken hostage during negotiations between Gov. Bullock and Republicans over infrastructure funding and was not yet scheduled for a House vote in the Legislature’s waning moments.

If the bill dies, the university system—or its tuition-paying students—will be covering the full cost of layoffs.

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Monday, April 17, 2017

Indy sign (inevitably) vandalized

Posted By on Mon, Apr 17, 2017 at 10:53 AM

The Missoula Independent's street-facing sign was turned into a punchline over the weekend.

Making a joke that Indy staffers have heard repeatedly since the paper was acquired by Lee Enterprises last Thursday, someone spray painted over the first two letters of the newspaper's name so it reads as "dependent."
The Missoula "dependent," get it? - PHOTO BY DEREK BROUWER
  • Photo by Derek Brouwer
  • The Missoula "dependent," get it?

Publisher Matt Gibson noticed the damage when he arrived at the office Monday morning and filed a police report.

"I can't believe it took this long for our sign to get vandalized," he says. The red-and-white sign is a decade old.

The Independent was independently owned since its founding in 1991. The paper is now under the same corporate umbrella as the Missoulian.

Read the newsroom's initial response to the sale here, and keep an eye out this Thursday for full coverage.

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Thursday, April 13, 2017

So, about that sale...

Posted By on Thu, Apr 13, 2017 at 1:36 PM

If you're reading this, you've probably already heard the news: Lee Enterprises, owner of the Missoulian, has purchased the Missoula Independent, effective today.

This is not a delayed April Fools joke, and it is not a cut-and-paste error from News of the Weird. The Independent, at least in terms of ownership, is no longer independent.

The paper's staff learned of the sale this morning at a 9 a.m. meeting at the Independent office with Independent publisher Matt Gibson, Missoulian Publisher Mike Gulledge and HR reps from Lee Enterprises.
The last independently owned Independent.
  • The last independently owned Independent.

We were not expecting the news. And frankly we have not come anywhere near fully processing it yet.

Here's what was presented to us: Gibson will stay on as publisher of the Independent. We will stay in our current offices at 317 S. Orange Street. All staff are being retained at their current salaries. Our benefits just got a bit better.

We are led to understand that the Independent will retain full editorial independence.

Are we skeptical? Damn right we're skeptical. Skepticism is kind of what we do.

And reporting.

We'll be reporting this story in the days and weeks to come, online and most prominently in next week's paper, the scheduled stories of which we've just scrapped in order to start over with blanket coverage of the sale: how we got to here, what it means for advertisers and for journalism in Montana, reactions from readers and prominent figures in Indy history, and what you can expect from us going forward.

The short answer to that last question is this: more of the same. We're taking Lee's assurance of editorial independence at face value until we hear otherwise. If we hear otherwise, you'll hear that from us. Right before we hand over the reins to whomever wants that job.

We don't have all the answers yet, but we're working hard to track them down, and we'll let you know what we know when we know it. We appreciate you sticking with us while we find our way forward.



Thursday, April 6, 2017

We're teaming up with Forward Montana and Last Best News to deliver Facebook Live town halls with the candidates for Montana's congressional seat. Got a question for the candidates? Let us have it!

Posted By on Thu, Apr 6, 2017 at 3:02 PM

Perhaps you've heard: Democrat Rob Quist, Republican Greg Gianforte and Libertarian Mark Wicks are seeking Montana's lone congressional seat, the one left vacant when President Trump called Ryan Zinke to Washington to head the Department of the Interior. The special election that will send one of these men to Congress will be held May 25.

Across the country, voters sit elections out because they lack access to reliable information about the candidates and issues, and Forward Montana, along with the Missoula Independent and Last Best News, aims to change that. We'll be jointly hosting Facebook Live town halls with the candidates so you can get to know them and what their positions mean to you. Forward Montana has hosted candidate forums for local and statewide elections for over five years.

“By offering the town halls online, we’re hoping to reach young people across Montana”, said Rachel Huff-Doria, Forward Montana’s Executive Director. “The town halls will provide accessible, fun and informative opportunities for voters to engage with candidates about the issues that matter most to Montanans.”

Each congressional candidate will be featured independently in hour-long town halls shown live on Facebook during the first week of May. Both Rob Quist, the Democratic candidate, and Mark Wicks, the Libertarian candidate, have confirmed their participation. Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate, has been invited, but has not yet responded.

“We hope that Greg Gianforte will participate in the town hall”, said Huff-Doria. “It’s important that young Montanans have information about all of the candidates on the ballot.”

To make sure you get the information you want and need, Forward Montana, the Missoula Independent, and Last Best News invite Montanans from anywhere in the state to submit questions for the town halls. Questions can be submitted online at forwardmontana.org/questionsforcongress by April 20.

Got a question? Let us have it.



Saturday, April 1, 2017

Saturday's avalanche advisory: Moderate danger

Posted By on Sat, Apr 1, 2017 at 7:29 AM

From the West Central Montana Avalanche Center: The current avalanche danger is MODERATE for the West Central Montana backcountry. Human triggered avalanches are possible in specific terrain. Evaluate the snow and terrain carefully to identify features of concern.
moderate-450.png

Good morning, this is Logan King with the West Central Montana Avalanche Center’s avalanche advisory for April 1, 2017. This danger rating does not apply to operating ski areas, expires at midnight tonight and is the sole responsibility of the U.S. Forest Service.

For the full advisory, including photos and video, visit the West Central Montana Avalanche Center's website.

Here's what the National Weather Service's backcountry forecast has to say for the rest of the weekend:

A few scattered showers under westerly flow will be expected today and tonight, though snow amounts will remain fairly light. By Sunday into Monday, additional scattered snow showers and cooler temperatures will be likely across the area. Drier and warmer weather will move over Tuesday and Wednesday under developing high pressure. 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Thursday's avalanche advisory: Moderate danger

Posted By on Thu, Mar 30, 2017 at 7:11 AM

From the West Central Montana Avalanche Center: The current avalanche danger is MODERATE for the West Central Montana backcountry. Human triggered avalanches are possible in specific terrain. Evaluate the snow and terrain carefully to to identify features of concern.
moderate-450.png

Good morning, this is Logan King with the West Central Montana Avalanche Center’s avalanche advisory for March 30, 2017. This danger rating does not apply to operating ski areas, expires at midnight tonight and is the sole responsibility of the U.S. Forest Service.

For the full advisory, visit the West Central Montana Avalanche Center's website.

Here's what the National Weather Service's backcountry forecast has to say heading into the weekend:
Snow accumulations of 6 to 12 inches above 5500 feet are expected today across southern Clearwater/Bitterroot, Flint Creek and Anaconda Ranges. Considering the relatively warm temperatures during the main snow event, a lot of compaction is anticipated. Some transport of snow by wind is possible toward northeast facing slopes, but realistically confined to above 7500 feet.

Another shot of minor accumulations across the Northern Rockies is possible on Sunday and Monday. Otherwise, temperatures will continue to warm above freezing each afternoon for most elevations for the next week.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Saturday's avalanche advisory: Low danger

Posted By on Sat, Mar 25, 2017 at 7:24 AM

From the West Central Montana Avalance Center: The current avalanche danger is LOW for the West Central Montana backcountry. Low danger does not mean no danger and avalanches are still possible in isolated terrain. Carefully evaluate terrain to identify features of greatest concern. With temperatures above freezing later today avalanche danger will increase in the afternoon as the sun starts to affect the snow surface.
low-450.png

Good morning, this is Logan King with the West Central Montana Avalanche Center’s avalanche advisory for March 25, 2017. This danger rating does not apply to operating ski areas, expires at midnight tonight and is the sole responsibility of the U.S. Forest Service.

For the full advisory, including photos and video, visit the West Central Montana Avalanche Center's website.

Here's what the National Weather Service's backcountry forecast has to say as the weekend continues:
Aside from the relatively dry periods of Sunday and Tuesday, high elevations snow showers will be present for much of the next week. Despite the high likelihood of snow, accumulations per event will be only up to several inches in a given day. Daytime temperatures will warm well above freezing each day, with overnight temperatures barely cooling to below freezing for some locations. Afternoon winds will become breezy at times,particularly this afternoon and Monday afternoon. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Montana news roundup, March 23

Posted By on Thu, Mar 23, 2017 at 4:43 PM

What others are writing about Montana this week, as collected by Mountain West News:

Montana lawmakers pass anti-Sharia law bill

Montana is one of 13 states, including Idaho, considering legislation this year that would prohibit the use of foreign law in state courts. Nine states already have similar laws, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. (3/22/17, Buzzfeed)

Fewer migrating geese land at Freezeout Lake
Freezeout Lake, Montana’s primary snow goose staging area where as many as 300,000 snow geese and 10,000 tundra swans gather and rest before flying onward, appears to be hosting fewer birds this year, perhaps because of warmer weather. (3/21/17, Great Falls Tribune)

Bull trout are bouncing back in Glacier backcountry
In 2009, USGS biologists in partnership with Glacier National Park pioneered a new effort to suppress lake trout in remote backcountry lakes and reintroduce dwindling native trout populations. According to a recent study, published in Fisheries Management and Ecology, results show strong evidence of success, and indicate that the efforts could be applied to other invaded habitats and broader ranges. (3/21/17, Flathead Beacon)

For tribes, GOP health bill ‘stops the momentum’
The Affordable Care Act contains several health insurance reforms specific to Native Americans. In Montana and across the country, tribes are reporting significant improvements as a result of the reforms. Now, state and tribal leaders fear much of that progress could be lost if the House GOP proposal to replace Obamacare passes as currently written. (3/22/17, Missoulian)

The Colstrip quandary spawns 12 bills in Montana
The 2,094-megawatt coal-fired Colstrip plant in eastern Montana, with two of its four units shutting down by 2022, has lawmakers wrangling with whether, and how, to save a rural company town. (3/21/17, ClimateWire)

Mining bill ‘about learning the lessons from our past’
So says state Rep. Nate McConnell, a Democrat from Missoula, who has introduced a bill that would increase the amount of bonding required for certain mines that have a higher likelihood of producing acid mine drainage. It’s primarily intended to protect the Smith River from the proposed Black Butte copper mine near Sheep Creek, a tributary of the Smith, in central Montana, a river Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester has described as “one of the best places to float, fish, and camp, and one of the last places you can escape civilization and truly experience Montana as our ancestors did.” (3/20/17, Great Falls Tribune)

Democrats’ ‘center of gravity’ may be moving West
Politico reports from Helena, where New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s appearance at a Montana Democratic Party dinner on Saturday night “is a signal that potential 2020 [presidential] contenders are recognizing the subtle shift away from more traditional party power centers on the East Coast.” (3/19/17, Politico)

Money pours in to sway Tester’s vote on Gorsuch
A $900,000 TV ad “carpet bombing” attempted to get Montana Sen. Jon Tester to confirm Trump nominee Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. (3/19/17, Billings Gazette)


Mountain West News is a service of the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West — a regional studies and public education program at the University of Montana. The Center’s purpose is to serve as an important and credible resource for people in the state and region in understanding the region’s past, present, and future. For more, visit mountainwestnews.org.

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