On Thursday afternoon, a small audience of government officials, alumni, business people and other stakeholders gathered in Montana Tech’s Frank & Ann Gilmore University Relations Center to take part in a tour of the university’s campus that showed off the $10 million Natural Resources Research Center, which was completed last year, and the $24 million Student Success Center, which is currently under construction.
But before they embarked, attendees heard from a clutch of speakers on the subject of the school’s ongoing transformation, which is embodied in these new buildings and also reflected in ongoing discussions about how the university is organized, focused and even named.
Chancellor Don Blackketter talked about the work Montana Tech’s Work Group for Institutional Realignment for Excellence — or WIRE, as it is commonly known — is doing to answer the question, “What do we look like now?”
Joe McClafferty, the university’s vice chancellor for advancement and university relations, discussed the “disruptive” movements that are changing so much of the economic, social and educational landscape — and that are pushing Tech to adapt and compete.
Nick DiGiovine, a member of the Montana Tech Foundation’s Board of Directors, told the audience, “This is a time of change — a time of rapid change.”
But with so much talk of change, some on campus are raising concerns about what Tech’s transformation might mean for the parts of the university that do not directly pertain to the school’s science and engineering special focus.
Henry Gonshak has taught English and history at Montana Tech since 1989. He says he has long embraced his role as a professor of humanities at a school primarily devoted to scientific pursuits but that he — and others — are “worried” about the direction the school has recently taken.
“For almost 30 years, my job has been to expose students who are not literary, who are not intellectual, and expose them to the humanities,” Gonshak says. “And I think that’s a very important job. And I think I’ve had a lot of success. I’ve had students that have really engaged with the literature, and it’s really been transformative. And I would hate to see that go away.”
While he acknowledges that “nobody really knows what’s going to happen,” Gonshak says his concerns are the result of the work of two committees on campus: WIRE and the Program Prioritization Committee.
WIRE has been meeting almost weekly since last spring, when the Montana University System’s Board of Regents designated the university a special focus four-year university. During that time, WIRE has been looking at everything from student recruitment to faculty salaries to the degrees being offered to departmental organization, all in an effort to find ways to enhance how the university is arranged and focused on science and engineering.
As The Montana Standard previously reported, the Program Prioritization Committee, which began meeting in January of this year, is considering such measures as reducing the number of faculty and staff on campus; removing, realizing or enhancing existing programs; examining the possibility of merging departments and enhancing collaboration; and capping enrollment in certain programs.
Though no decisions have yet been made, Gonshak says the combination of the special focus designation and the prioritization process has stoked “a lot of anxiety on campus, particularly among those of us in the liberal arts and the humanities.” Concerns are highest, Gonshak says, “among young, un-tenured faculty” who are afraid “they might lose their jobs.”
According to Gonshak, he and his colleagues have striven to ensure the Liberal Studies Department adapts to changes in higher education and at Tech.
“We’re moving in an interdisciplinary direction, and we’ve really worked hard on it,” Gonshak says. “But there has been a recognition that there is a niche on this campus for exposing engineering students and science students to the humanities. And also for students that are interested in the humanities that are place-bound, that can’t go elsewhere, we’ve had a degree program for them. I’m just fearful that that’s going to disappear, as a result of the special focus. It’s too early to say for sure and I hope I’m wrong, but I’m not the only one who feels this way.”
One person who shares some of Gonshak’s concerns is Gary Funk, who came to Tech in 2011 to conduct two campus choirs and to serve as an adjunct faculty member in Liberal Studies after retiring from a full-time teaching position at the University of Montana.
In an email, Funk placed his concerns about what he fears might happen at Tech within a broader context of the Montana University System and a longterm downward trajectory in funding for higher education in the state.
As funding declines, Funk argues, “the cost must then be borne by the students in the form of increased tuition or the respective campus Foundations and other fundraising efforts.”
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The result, he says, could lead to “a huge shift of focus because, if and when implemented, these changes essentially convert our institutions of ‘higher’ education away from providing what I view as an ‘essential education' towards vocational training.”
At Tech, Funk says he anticipates that will lead to a funding shift away from the humanities: “What I expect will occur if/when the PPC's recommendations are implemented is that a portion of the resources saved from the lopping off of courses in the liberal arts and from the consolidation of departments will be redistributed in some fashion to disciplines related directly to vocationalism.”
Asked about the grave concerns some in the Liberal Studies department harbor in the face of coming changes, Blackketter responded via email to say, “There has been no discussion to date on which, if any programs, will be cut. There has been discussion regarding strategies to promote synergies around campus that will lead to better collaborations and efficiencies. Faculty and staff numbers are established and adjusted based on enrollment and state funding to best meet our educational goals.''
In response to a question about how a PPC directive that asked departments to establish clear alignment with industries might affect the Liberal Studies Department, Blackketter wrote that “environmental, societal and human interactions are critical pieces to any industry or business. Having an industrial perspective is beneficial to all our programs as we prepare graduates for employment.”
Blackketter also noted that the university anticipates a balanced budget for the 2019 fiscal year — an improvement over the anticipated $3 million budget shortfall recently reported in The Montana Standard.
All the talk of change on the Montana Tech campus has also led to questions about how the two-year Highlands College will fit into the broader university picture in the future.
Two-year colleges in the state fall under one of three categories: community colleges, which are the most independent; standalones, which are indepdendently accredited and have a campus CEO; and embedded schools, which are structurally part of another university.
Currently, Highlands is embedded within Montana Tech. That means students at Highlands receive their degrees from Tech and are otherwise treated like students in the school’s other schools, such as the School of Mines and Engineering and the College of Letters, Sciences and Professional Studies.
According to John Cech, deputy commissioner for academic research and student affairs for the Montana University System, “Through the WIRE process, they’re asking themselves how does Highlands fit into the special focus designation of Tech?”
Dave Gurchiek, the dean of Highlands College, says he went before the WIRE committee earlier this year to raise that question — and to offer his insight on the direction Highlands might take.
“We could either stay embedded or we could become integrated,” Gurchiek says. “And the difference on that really is, we could actually start doing bachelor programs. In other words, we’d be like a college on the north campus [of Tech]. Right now, we just do all two-year education. So if we start adding more BS degrees, we could do those things. But if you came down here — let’s say we change our name and become an integrated program —you’d say, ‘It looks kind of the same.’”
While Gurchiek says “it makes no difference” whether the school stays embedded or becomes more fully integrated, he says he's “not a big fan of standalone."
“I just can’t imagine us, financially, becoming a standalone," Gurchiek says. "I think it would be too much of a burden on the community.”
When asked about the future of Highlands, Blackketter wrote, “I doubt standalone is an option — but [it] could possibly be part of the discussion next year. However, this kind of decision would be a multi-year kind of process working closely with OCHE [the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education].”
Those discussions, Blackketter adds, “will help inform what are the advantages and disadvantages along with what it fully means to be ‘integrated’ versus ‘embedded.’”
John Garic, a former Highlands College dean and a current visiting professor in Montana Tech’s Business and Information Technology Department, says all parts of the campus are “wrestling” with how to do deal with the parts of the university that don’t fit neatly within its special focus.
“To me there’s a wait and see,” Garic says. “But that being said, there is great value in faculty expressing their concerns and values to the various committees to say, ‘Look, we know that Tech has a special focus, but even with a special focus, I think we have a responsibility to our students to turn them out as well-rounded and engaged citizens. And of course well-rounded means not just in the STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] disciplines.’”