When Montana Tech’s Program Prioritization Committee voted in mid-December to endorse the final draft of the Montana Technological University Alignment Plan, Chancellor Don Blackketter and other university administrators believed they were near the end of a lengthy, deliberate, and admittedly painful process that would trim four departments and 10 faculty positions and allow the university to chart its path forward as a leaner school with a more concentrated focus on science and engineering.
But two months later, critics of the plan continue to resist the changes the plan has already begun to implement and have mounted a concerted effort to at least slow the process down.
While some of those critics are on campus, others are not.
Members of Butte’s legislative delegation, local business leaders, and Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive Dave Palmer have all appealed to Clayton Christian, Montana’s Commissioner of Higher Education, asking him to step in and “slow down the process of eliminating programs at Montana Tech,” as Palmer put it in a Feb. 1 first letter to Christian.
At the heart of their appeal for a delay is Blackketter’s impending retirement. As he announced in October, Tech’s chancellor will leave the university this June after eight years on the job. A search committee is now in the process of seeking his replacement, and Palmer and others have asked that the school’s new leader be allowed to have a say in the campus-reorganization process.
“I’ve had several people call me or talk to me about it (the alignment plan), and they just thought it was too rushed,” Palmer told The Montana Standard soon after sending his letter to Christian. “And with the new chancellor coming in, they thought it would be good to give him a chance to have a say in what direction they want to see Montana Tech move.”
Blackketter, however, argues that the realignment process he has led will set the stage for his successor’s success.
“I think we have provided an incredible opportunity for the next person to come in,” Blackketter said. “He’s got a great snapshot of the institution. He or she has a very balanced budget. The faculty that were part of the prioritization plan are still on campus. I don’t think you want a new person to do that work.”
Jim Keane, who represents Butte in the Montana House of Representatives, has also been concerned about the planned cuts to Montana Tech’s faculty and programs. In an effort to better understand the university’s financial situation, Keane says he recently asked a staffer to gather information about the university’s budget and funds.
The information provided by the Legislative Fiscal Division showed the university’s fund balance as of November 2018 was $67 million. That’s more than double Tech’s approximately $31 million operating budget, leading Keane to question why the school is eliminating programs and positions with so much in the coffers.
“With the amount of money Tech has, a broad, campus-wide group should have looked at the Tech budget and available resources that could have been used to help all areas of the university,” Keane said recently.
According to Blackketter and Provost Doug Abbott, the university actually has even more money than the LFD found. Data provided by the university shows that the total Tech has on hand for fiscal year 2019 is in fact just more than $87 million. But, administrators say, about $54 million of that has tight restrictions on how it can be used.
Though $33 million is unrestricted and can be used to pay faculty salaries and other program costs, the rest is held in accounts that are restricted for specified purposes by the Montana University System.
For example, nearly $24 million belongs to Tech’s plant fund. According to an MUS worksheet that defines budget terms, these plant funds must be “used for the acquisition of long term assets, for renewal or replacement of campus properties, for debt service payments, or to account for the cost of long-lived assets.”
Another pot of some $18 million is classified as Current Restricted, meaning that this money is restricted by “sources external” to the MUS Board of Regents or the Montana Legislature, according the same budget worksheet. Much of this money comes from grants that must be used for a certain purpose, Blackketter said.
And he points to the success of the university’s new — and very first — PhD program as a major factor in the size of this pot of restricted money. Since the school started a Materials Science PhD, it has received millions in grant money. To build on that, the school is in the process of pursuing two new PhDs, one in Electrical Engineering and another in Earth Science and Engineering.
Abbott said that move toward additional graduate degrees and research funding is part of the broader campus reorganization, which is the result of “a year-long data-driven analysis of all academic and non-academic programs” that also led to the recommendations for cuts and realignment.
“I call this is a right-sizing exercise,” Abbott said, adding that “one of the things that we’re trying to get done here is to make sure that resources go to programs that need them.”
With more than five faculty positions left unfilled, four terminal contracts signed, and multiple departments cut or moved as a result of the alignment plan’s adoption, Tech also looks to reduce costs going forward.
In a January statement, then-Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration Brant Wright said, “The reorganization will save a little over $10,000 plus $470,000 from five and a half unfilled positions in FY 20 (fiscal year 2020) in addition to the four terminated positions in FY 21 (fiscal year 2021) of $310,000. Savings will also be recognized in improved collaboration within and between the departments and the streamlining of curriculum that will benefit the students.”
But soon after this statement was issued, Wright’s responsibilities for overseeing Tech finances and budget were reassigned to Carleen Cassidy. Wright was left to oversee Tech's administration functions.
Asked whether this change was connected to Wright’s performance or the school’s financial situation, Blackketter said, “We want to use people's talents in the areas that they’re best at. And so reassigning some duties with the finance to Carleen made sense for us.”
Wright declined to comment.
While administrators defend the changes as part of a long-term and comprehensive process, critics such as Ray Rogers, who has advocated in particular for keeping the slated-to-be-eliminated Health Care Informatics and Professional and Technical Communications departments, argue that it’s the longer-term problems and bigger picture that are at the heart of the issue.
“One of the big questions that’s been really nagging at me is, for the last several years, there’s obviously been signals in their data around declining enrollments that should’ve been raising flags over the last number of years, and I haven’t seen anything that has indicated that here has been attempts to address any of those issues,” said Rogers, the chief executive officer of the Butte-based National Center for Health Care Informatics and the former director of college relations and marketing at Montana Tech. “For example, if enrollments in fact were declining in the (Healthcare) Informatics program, why wasn’t the administration putting strategies in places to either increase marketing and recruitment or evaluating other issues in the program that are problematic? Why were they not addressing the warning signs?”
As calls keep coming for a delay in decisions about cuts, Blackketter objects to the idea that the process was rushed and argues he’s laying the groundwork for Tech to thrive under its next chancellor.
“We know more about our institution, we know more about where people generally agree we should be going. What an incredible resource for not only the next chancellor but also for the institution moving forward,” Blackketter said of the alignment plan and the process that created it. “It’s a very valuable resource.”
But off-campus critics of the plan say it’s not only about Montana Tech.
“I think it’s way too important for Tech and way too important for the community to rush through this,” said Ryan Lynch, a Democrat who also represents Butte in the Montana House.
Palmer added that “the economic impact that Montana Tech has on Butte-Silver Bow is huge” and that “when enrollment starts to drop and programs get cut, we get concerned.”
Lynch credited Blackketter with helping improve and drive the dialogue about how to help the fortunes of Tech and Butte rise together during his tenure but said he’s concerned about a seeming change in direction.
“There’s been more dialogue (under Blackketter),” Lynch said. “There’s been a good productive dialogue about how do you make sure both entities are stronger together. So it’s unfortunate to see that change of events.”
While Lynch and others are seeking a pause, Abbott said Thursday, “The campus is moving forward. We are implementing the recommendations (from the alignment plan) as we speak.”
As for whether Christian will intervene, that seems unlikely.
In his response to Palmer’s Feb. 1 letter, which asked Christian to meet with "a small group of Butte people to talk about the proposed changes," the commissioner suggested that Brock Tessman, the deputy commissioner currently leading the search for Montana Tech’s new chancellor, attend the meeting in his place.
That meeting is tentatively set for Feb. 14, but Tessman indicated Friday it’s highly unlikely he or Christian will intervene.
While he acknowledged why critics might want to push back implementation of the alignment plan cuts, Tessman said, “I think that argument shows too little respect for the rigor and depth and duration of the process that led to these recommendations. ... I think it would be wrong for our office to start getting in there and start pretending we understand the nuances of programming options and where to move every single dollar.”
Critics, though, are holding out hope.
“We hope that it’s not a foregone conclusion,” Rogers recently said of the planned cuts. “We hope that there is a way that this process can be paused.”