UM must right its academic course first

October 17, 2013

by Mehrdad Kia

In the past two years, the University of Montana has scrambled from one crisis to the next. Like a football team that keeps on fumbling the ball inside its own end zone, the university cannot expect to move forward and win the game against tough competition unless its leadership can avoid getting out-coached and turning over the ball.

Hardly a week passes without the community learning about another embarrassing incident or a controversial decision. There is now no doubt that the crises the university faces today are self-inflicted. The mishandling of the sexual assault allegations and their aftermath, the unexplained firings of the athletic director and the football coach, the panic-stricken response to the arrival of federal investigators in Missoula, and the signing of a highly flawed agreement with the departments of Justice and Education, all originated in Main Hall itself. It is these failings and mishaps that have caused a significant drop in enrollment, a sharp decrease in revenue and a loss of reputation for the institution.

But bad news keeps on coming. The most recent to hit the press, on Oct. 5, was the announcement by UM’s vice-president for administration and finance that the university was planning to make permanent cuts to academic programs. These cuts come at a time when top administrators at UM are receiving significant salary increases, and as the university is hiring an expensive outside firm to help with recruitment of students. If these handsome raises were paid to an administration flush with success, and these spending sprees were invested in major institutional improvements, one might have been tempted to argue that they were deserving compensation for a dynamic and accomplished team. Coming, however, in the wake of a significant decline in enrollment, a substantial decrease in revenue and a damaged reputation, these salary increases are viewed by many at the university and in the community as a slap in the face of the hard-working and low-paid UM staff, and a faculty struggling to negotiate a meager pay raise.

The fundamental questions, which the local media has ignored and the UM administration has failed to answer, are: Why is there always money available for new lucrative administrative positions and raises, while there is always a budgetary shortfall when it comes to supporting the staff and the faculty who constitute the backbone of the university? And why doesn’t the administration balance its budget by applying cuts to administrative salaries, benefits and discretionary budgets before targeting the existing academic programs?

Adding insult to injury, the university community is awakening to the disturbing news that the UM administration is planning to send the names of students, staff and faculty who refuse to complete a mandatory tutorial on its new sexual harassment policy to the federal government, specifically the Department of Justice. Negotiated without consultation with faculty, staff or student governance, the agreement with the federal government has been sharply criticized by liberal and conservative commentators and academicians in numerous publications such as the Atlantic, Commentary, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, and on the websites of several national organizations, including FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), which has denounced the agreement as violating free speech and the basic constitutional rights of UM employees.

The university’s unwillingness to listen to these critics, and its determination to send the names of those who refuse to take the tutorial to the federal government, have forced groups of faculty to consult attorneys and contemplate filing a lawsuit against the administration. After ducking a legal confrontation with the Advocates for Missoula’s Future, which was threatening a lawsuit if a Missoula College building were to be built on the UM Golf Course, the university now confronts the possibility of facing its own faculty members in a courtroom.

The UM administration must awaken to the reality that the strength, legitimacy and future of the university depend on a robust and solid curriculum, a strong and productive faculty and a safe and professional environment. Throwing money at the bureaucracy and at marketing gimmicks with one hand, while pulling the rug out from under academic programs with the other, will do nothing to right the university’s course.

 

View this article at Missoulian.

Schools: University of Montana