Cutting teachers for dummies: How to maximize pain and minimize profit at UM 

Kevin McManigal is a lecturer in the geography and forestry departments at the University of Montana, where he teaches four courses in cartography and geographic information systems. Last semester, he won the David B. Friend Memorial Award for Excellence in Teaching. At the beginning of this semester, he got a letter from the university saying he wouldn't be hired back.

"I thought I was pretty set, being teacher of the year and all," he told Lucy Tompkins of the Montana Kaimin. "Guess again."

McManigal is one of 35 UM lecturers who got letters telling them that they should not expect to see their contracts renewed in the spring. Two of those letters have been rescinded, since the university found that the lecturers who got them were funded by private grants. This mistake—trying to save money by firing teachers they weren't paying in the first place—reflects the administration's approach to handling ongoing budget cuts. To borrow a term from pedagogy, the approach is dumb.

Last spring, Interim President Sheila Stearns announced Forward125, a program to "align university spending with declining enrollment," i.e., cut teaching in less popular programs. This idea makes sense. If reduced enrollment means the university needs to get rid of teachers, it should lose the ones who teach the fewest students. But that's not what these lecturer cuts are doing.

The administration plans to determine which academic departments produce the least revenue for their costs, but it hasn't done so yet. Instead, it sent the letters to lecturers based on reverse seniority. The ones hired last will be fired first. This approach saves money in the least efficient way possible. Because new hires tend to teach more classes than their senior colleagues and get paid less to do it, UM's plan to lay off lecturers guarantees the maximum loss in teaching capacity per dollar saved.

Consider Robert Stubblefield, a lecturer in the English department who has been informed that his contract will not be renewed in the spring. Stubblefield teaches five courses and serves as faculty adviser for the undergraduate literary magazine. He gets paid substantially less than tenured professors in his department, but he teaches more. Dollar-for-dollar, the university will lose more services by firing him than it would by cutting virtually any other faculty line.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

For comparison, let's look at another teacher on campus: Royce Engstrom, who recently rejoined the chemistry department after a term as president of the university during which enrollment dropped by about 20 percent. Engstrom will teach two classes this year, in exchange for a salary of $117,000. The university expects to save $900,000 in salary and benefits by laying off 33 lecturers, at an average savings of $27,272 per lecturer. If they are laying off 33 McManigals and Stubblefields, they will lose instruction for upward of 130 classes. Or they could fire eight Engstroms and lose instruction for 16 classes.

This comparison is misleading, partly because professors with seniority often teach upper-level courses that lecturers do not (and vice versa), and partly because tenure rules and union agreements prevent the administration from starting its cuts at the top. Then again, union agreements also seem to prohibit the university from firing lecturers midway through the academic year, but it's doing that anyway. Regardless of whether its decisions are influenced by labor agreements or by its desire to expend as little effort as possible, the administration is making these cuts unwisely.

There is also a moral issue at work here. The university has not experienced a historic drop in enrollment because its lecturers taught poorly. It's hard to say why enrollment dropped, but the drop coincides with a nationally infamous sexual assault scandal—one the administration handled poorly. For the last five years, the same administration said it would make improving enrollment its top priority. Enrollment continued to drop over the same period. From this perspective, the situation at UM looks very much like one half of the university did its job poorly, and now the other half is suffering as a result.

Putting aside the moral issue, however, these cuts to lecturers are a bad way to deal with UM's enrollment problem. By cutting the school's highest-value employees, UM undermines its core service area: teaching. They are un-strategic at a moment when the administration claims to be developing a strategy. Perhaps worst of all, they continue to undermine the reputation of an institution whose public image has already been tarnished. If the University of Montana were not in good hands—if the administration were not pursuing a wise strategy of prioritization to balance what it does with whom it serves, and instead just cutting willy-nilly, flailing about with no real plan—how would it behave differently?

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and the ongoing devaluation of his graduate degree at combatblog.net.

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