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Montana Tech in Butte Montana

Montana Tech is pushing to reduce the size of its faculty in response to declining budgets and enrollment.

Montana Tech will undergo a significant cutting and reshuffling of its faculty, staff, and programs if the university follows through with the recommendations made in a draft report released Friday afternoon.

According to the first draft of the Montana Technological University Alignment Plan, as that report is known, the school would, among other changes:  

  • Eliminate its Healthcare Informatics program and its three faculty positions
  • Eliminate its Professional and Technical Communication program, cut two of its faculty positions, and reassign the program’s other two positions to the Liberal Studies program
  • Eliminate its Data Science and Statistics program but reassign its three faculty members to other programs
  • Eliminate the General Studies program at Highlands College and one of its three faculty positions
  • Merge the Geophysical Engineering and Geological Engineering programs, eliminate the undergraduate Geophysical Engineering degree, add a masters in Geophysical Engineering, and cut two faculty positions from the program
  • Move one faculty position from Metallurgy and Materials Engineering to Mechanical Engineering
  • Move one faculty position from Safety Health and Industrial Hygiene to Biological Sciences
  • Reduce one faculty position from the Petroleum Engineering, Environmental Engineering, Business and Information Technology, and Chemistry and Geochemistry programs
  • Add one position to the Electrical Engineering program
  • Reduce the Chancellor’s office’s operating budget by $25,000
  • Cut 10 and a half staff positions

The plan to cut four programs, 13-and-a-third full-time faculty positions, and more than 10 staff positions has some observers, both on and off campus, concerned about the university’s direction during a period of already declining enrollments and budgets.

Pat Munday, a longtime professor and former head of the Professional and Technical Communication department, expressed dismay upon hearing the news.

“After nearly 30 years with Montana Tech, it’s a shock to read that a program you’ve given your life for is recommended for termination,” Munday said Friday night. “It’s far worse for newer faculty who signed on with Montana Tech expecting that, if they did their part, they could make a career here. I’ve been fielding calls all evening from faculty who are devastated to think they might lose their jobs and from alumni who can’t believe the program that launched their career will end. I don’t know what to say to my colleagues or former students.”

Kristi Bailey, an assistant professor in the Health Care Informatics program, said learning that her program and her job are slated to be eliminated is “devastating,” not only personally but also for the community.

Ray Rogers co-founded the Health Care Informatics program with Patrick Dudley in the early 2000s, when he says it was “way ahead of the curve in terms of health information technology” and was “positioned to be a leader in that area.”

And Rogers said he and Dudley, who now run the Butte-based National Center for Health Care Informatics and are behind the proposed Praxis Center, are “really disappointed that the program is being recommended for elimination.”

While the draft alignment plan praises the Health Care Informatics program as “focused and of high quality” and one with “all the ingredients for success,” the plan’s authors also claim that the program “has not been able to recruit students to create a sustainable program.”

But Rogers says that inability is a result of the university’s recruitment practices, not a flaw with the program itself.

“When the program was actively recruited, the program was strong and enrollment was strong,” Rogers said. “And I just don’t see the commitment to recruitment now, and we see that declining enrollment.”

Rogers said that these trends could be combated if the university would pursue “other strategies as opposed to retraction,” such as targeted marketing and recruitment.

But according to Doug Abbott, the university’s provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, Tech is already committed to those strategies — and they are producing results.

“We have dedicated more money to recruiting this past year than we ever have,” Abbott said. “And as payback to that investment, our first-time freshman class (enrollment) is up. So people need to realize that we have fewer students than we’ve had, but we’ve also seen cuts from the state, from the Legislature. This all isn’t due to a decline in students. We’ve been dealing with budget cuts as well.”

While pointing to budgets as a motivator for the planned program, faculty, and staff reductions, Abbott also emphasized that the university is “not in dire financial circumstances.”

“We have reserves,” Abbott said. “We’ve used some reserves this year, and reserves are available for future use as well.”

Rather, he argues, “a big chunk of our problem” is a ten-year trend that has seen the number of full-time faculty increase 32 percent between 2008 and 2018, leading to a decline in the ratio of students to faculty from 16.9 students per faculty member in 2008 to 13.8 students per faculty member this year.

Ultimately, the university wants to bring that ratio back to 16 to 1, according to Abbott, Chancellor Don Blackketter, and others. And the cuts to programs and faculty outlined in Friday’s draft report would begin to move the school in that direction. But more reductions might be necessary, according to Abbott, through retirement and other forms of attrition.

“If somebody were to retire tomorrow, we would need to review that position as to whether or not we would fill it,” Abbott said. “A decision would need to be made. It wouldn’t be automatic. We are prepared to get to the target student-to-faculty ratio of 16 to 1. Maybe we don’t get there in one year. Maybe it's two years. But that’s our target.”

While Munday says he’s aware of Tech’s issues with budget and enrollment, he is among those on campus who question whether cuts are the best path toward a healthier Montana Tech.

“I know Montana has fewer high school graduates, and this is blamed for several years of declining enrollment at Montana Tech,” Munday said. “Despite that, MSU — and I think every other engineering college in the U.S. — has increased its enrollment over the past several years. College recruiting is not my area of expertise, but I have to think that Montana Tech could grow its way out of this crisis. Cutting programs will only cause a further decline in enrollment. That just doesn’t seem like a good plan.”

While the cuts are slated to go into effect next fall, Abbott says the university will ensure that students have the opportunity to graduate from their current programs even if they are slated to be eliminated.

As for how the university will determine which specific faculty members will lose their positions, Abbot said, “It’s more likely that a non-tenured faculty member would be reduced.”

University administrators have formed two committees of faculty and staff to provide input on the university’s reorganization and reduction plans, but the decision about whether and how to cut will ultimately be up to Blackketter, who is set to retire at the end of June. And some on campus say they don’t believe their point of view is being properly considered.  

“Sadly, we as individual faculty have little or no power in this decision process,” Munday said. “Like many faculty, I eagerly await what our faculty senate or what the faculty union has to say. I would hope that the union, especially, will show leadership on this issue.”

Chris Danielson, the president of the faculty union, which is known as the Montana Tech Faculty Association, said, “The faculty union is going to do everything in its power to minimize the number of faculty reductions.”

While he did not lay out how exactly the faculty union will pursue minimizing the cuts, Danielson, a professor of history in the Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences program and a member of the Program Prioritization Committee that helped author the draft plan, said, “My goal is to see as few faculty laid off as possible.”

The Tech campus, alumni, and the Butte community will have an opportunity over the next two weeks to discuss the merits and drawbacks of the draft plan before Blackketter releases a final alignment plan on Dec. 14.

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