The University of Montana faces "breathtaking" challenges in attempts to right the ship 

As it began its search for a new University of Montana president in December, a panel of paid consultants and state regents asked the university's top administrators what qualities to look for in Royce Engstrom's replacement. Mike Reid, vice president for administration and finance, offered a description similar to one Hunter S. Thompson used in his famous obituary for Richard Nixon. UM's next president should be able to smile while shaking your hand, Reid said, and then "twist the knife" with the other.

That person won't be hired until October, but Reid's assessment points to the challenge ahead for interim President Sheila Stearns and other university leaders as they attempt to address a years-in-the-making budget crisis that is coming to a head. Stearns, three months into the job, has signaled that the knife-twisting can't wait much longer. She released a draft proposal in February titled Forward125 (named for UM's 125th year in existence) that could eliminate up to 100 positions over the next year. And here's the smiling pitch: Stearns believes a carefully considered downsizing can stabilize a university that since 2010 has suffered, and continues to suffer, one of the nation's steepest enrollment declines. With the pool of Montana high school students expected to start growing, Stearns says, UM could finally start to move past its troubles.

Getting to the other side, however, will require something of a high-wire act. In the next few months, UM officials have to finish a rewrite of the university's strategic plan, use that to help prioritize academic programs and services, then cut millions more dollars from the budget. They have to do it with an interim president and provost, and with a faculty collective bargaining agreement due for renegotiation. Trouble at any step could undercut the steps that follow and cause the process to unravel, sending faculty or prospective students running.

Lee Banville, communications chair for the University Faculty Association, calls the challenges "breathtaking."

The process Stearns put forth in her Forward125 plan divides the budget problem into two parts. One group will prepare a 2018 budget by May, while a separate group begins developing criteria to rank campus programs so that broader downsizing decisions can be made by January 2018.

click to enlarge The University of Montana has a lot to juggle as Interim President Sheila Stearns leads a budget-cutting process that will eliminate jobs and reduce academic programs.
  • The University of Montana has a lot to juggle as Interim President Sheila Stearns leads a budget-cutting process that will eliminate jobs and reduce academic programs.

Prior budget cuts have been deeply contentious and were resisted by faculty, particularly the 200-position reduction conducted by Engstrom a year ago (which included only 27 layoffs). The idea of ranking academic departments, a process known as program prioritization, which Engstrom agreed to pursue shortly before his forced resignation, is equally contentious. But Stearns scored an important win last month when the UFA union and faculty senate voted to participate in the process of determining where budget cuts should occur.

The vote amounts to an acknowledgment that the cuts are inevitable, even if tenured positions are among the casualties. UFA representatives say that reality set in after university budget officials recently gave them a "sobering" PowerPoint presentation that laid out the numbers.

"The days of kicking the can down the road are over," union President Paul Haber said at an emergency meeting for members last month.

The meeting, which drew close to 100 people, showcased the division between a majority of faculty and an outspoken wing led by professors Doug Coffin and Michel Valentin, who have opposed budget-cutting measures. For the past several years, this self-styled "advocacy coalition" has staged protests and press conferences blaming the university's enrollment drop and subsequent budget problems on administrative mismanagement. Valentin decried the Forward125 process as forcing faculty to slit their own throats.

Banville says the chief flaw in the cuts overseen by Engstrom's administration was the lack of transparency surrounding them, which Banville says has contributed to a climate of fear across campus. He says union leaders are skeptical of the upcoming process, particularly the idea that UM can adequately review its offerings on such a short timeline. They just don't see a responsible alternative to participating.

"We're not going to cut our way to a great university in the future," Banville says, "but also, just saying 'no,' or throwing up our hands and walking away and saying, 'This is your problem, you made this mess, go fix it,' doesn't serve our students well and, frankly, doesn't serve the faculty well, and doesn't serve the institution."

Moreover, what promises to be a tenuous process is being compounded by new funding instability at the state level that prevents Stearns from knowing how quickly she needs to cut staff, and by how much. The latest budget proposal at the Montana Legislature would cut $24 million in funding over two years from the state's public universities, only a fraction of which would likely be offset by hikes in tuition rates. Reid says his math indicates UM could face a budget cut as deep as $14 million, or 9 percent of total funds, by 2019more than triple the amount the university's budget has declined so far this decade. Yet Reid has also projected less dire funding scenarios that put the cut at only a couple million dollars.

click to enlarge news_um_2.jpg

In response to the uncertain funding outlook, Stearns says she's assembling a "rapid response team" to identify reductions this spring. A different "mini task force" will present a package of early retirement incentives to UM employees in April. Stearns acknowledges that such rapid cuts, to the extent they become necessary, won't be as strategic as those determined through a faculty-assisted process. That could strain relations with faculty, who debated their role in Forward125 under the assumption that the most significant cuts would take place on the longer timeline.

Descending into "civil war," as Banville puts it—whether between faculty, staff and administrators or academic programs—is UM's nightmare scenario. Many public universities have absorbed budget cuts imposed by legislatures, but UM's crisis has always been about more than the reductions. Its enrollment problem is in large part an internal one, prompting years of finger-pointing over which administrators, policies or programs are to blame. The more contentious Forward125 becomes, the more the process will damage the university's public image—which itself has been blamed for scaring away students.

Administrators are sensitive to the need to navigate the budget situation while maintaining a positive public face. At the December session with the panel of hiring consultants, UM administrators complained that local media were unfair to the university in their coverage of the enrollment crisis. University and state higher education officials have routinely listed bad press as a contributor to the continued decline. Just last week, Stearns tweeted that she was "disappointed" by a Missoulian headline that quoted Coffin's mention of a campus "death spiral."

Banville, too, says the notion of UM on the precipice of a death spiral is "alarmist." He does, however, believe the Forward125 process will leave scars, even in a best-case scenario. "My hope is that this process, though difficult, will lead to some confidence among the faculty and the public about how we're run and the decisions we make," he says.

Stearns is putting on an even more optimistic front, dismissing any suggestion that the challenges facing her alma mater are existential.

"I am completely comfortable with the prospect for the good health and future for the University of Montana," she says. "I honestly am."

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