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Program Prioritization Committee endorses alignment plan

Montana Tech Chancellor Don Blackketter got a green light Friday from the university's Program Prioritization Committee to move forward with a plan that will lead to faculty and department cuts as the university charts its course forward with a more concentrated focus on science and engineering.

Montana Tech's Program Prioritization Committee voted 13-3 Friday afternoon to endorse a plan that will eliminate four departments and 10 faculty positions as the university charts a path forward with a more concentrated focus on science and engineering.

While the vote was not binding, the endorsement gave Chancellor Don Blackketter a green light to proceed with the recommendations included in the third and final draft of the Montana Technological University Alignment Plan, which was released Thursday evening.

Asked after Friday's meeting whether the committee's vote came as a relief, Blackketter objected to the notion that the process of determining exactly how to implement the plan was over.

"It's just the beginning, in lots of ways," said Blackketter, who is set to retire at the end of June.

Noting that the document is "fluid," Blackketter told the committee that "we will find ways to make better as we go forward."

Among those who hope the plan changes is Katie Hailer, the vice president of the faculty union, which is known as the Montana Tech Faculty Association. Voting in place of union President Chris Danielson, who was out of town, Hailer said she had not endorsed the alignment plan.

"The union is not going to endorse anything with faculty cuts and no administrative cuts," Hailer said. "That's the sticking point for the union."

Blackketter pointed out that the plan calls for cutting one-half of a position in administration, and that five of the 10 faculty reductions are the result of not filling open positions.

In the two weeks since the plan's first draft was released, the university has hosted two forums on the proposal and made some changes to its substance. For example, three fewer faculty jobs will be cut than initially proposed. Those positions will be saved largely by moving faculty from departments slated for elimination to other departments. In addition, some elements of the soon-to-be-shuttered departments, such as an undergraduate Data Science degree, will be saved.

And though the university moved from first draft to Friday's vote in just two weeks, Blackketter notes in the plan's introduction that "the process for developing the plan began before May 2017" when the Montana University System's Board of Regents designated Tech a special focus institution.

After that designation, the university formed two committees — the Program Prioritization Committee and the Work Group for Institutional Realignment for Excellence (WIRE) — to determine how the school could best adopt it.

But not everyone at Tuesday's meeting felt the process was as judicious and thorough as it could have been.

Glen Southergill, an assistant professor in the department of Professional and Technical Communication, which is slated to be eliminated, argued that by not taking more time, the university risked "unintended consequences" of implementing the plan. He also noted that the metrics administrators used failed to adequately consider "value added" from programs and positions slated to be cut.

While attendance at Friday's meeting was slight, Provost Doug Abbott noted that the university had received 91 comments on the plan. But the committee's failure to discuss them in detail at the meeting drew a rebuke from Pat Munday, a professor in the Professional and Technical Communication department, who told the committee its suggested adoption of the alignment plan was "merely a pro forma process and that it was never meant to be taken seriously by the committee."

Blackketter, however, emphasized that he has been — and remains — committed to continuing to listen to input about the plan.

In his introduction to the final alignment plan, Blackketter wrote that it would serve as a "base" but that it might "also evolve and morph as further improvements are found during implementation."

Blackketter also noted in the introduction that the "program prioritization process will become a continuous process" going forward with annual evaluations of programs.

He offered thanks to the committee for "working effectively, professionally and thoughtfully," and said, "Montana Tech continues to be in a financially solid position. 

"I'm committed to the most effective use of taxpayer dollars to the benefit of our students."

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