Wags and wits frequently savor skewering the often mundane dreariness of the committee experience.
Celebrated automobile designer Alec Issigonis famously quipped, “A camel is a horse designed by committee.” Comedian Milton Berle observed, “A committee is a group that keeps minutes and loses hours.”
At this writing, two committees underway at Montana Tech are working to define what the Butte-based university is and what it might become. One is wrapping up its work, and one is just getting started.
Their deliberations, clearly far from mundane, have stirred some measure of angst among faculty and staff.
One force driving the committees’ efforts, either directly or indirectly, is Montana Tech’s designation last year by the state university system’s Board of Regents and Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education as a “special focus” four-year university emphasizing engineering, science, and health sciences and engaging in related research.
And, of course, Montana Tech is in the midst of budget challenges linked to, among other things, cuts in state funding and declining enrollment. Fall enrollment during the past nine years peaked in 2015 at 2,980 students. Enrollment this fall totaled 2,678.
The Work Group for Institutional Realignment for Excellence, known as WIRE, met for the first time in April 2017. Its co-chairs are Dan Trudnowski, dean of the School of Mines and Engineering, and Hilary Risser, chair of the Department of Mathematical Sciences. WIRE has 13 members and includes representatives from faculty and staff.
Trudnowski said Wednesday that WIRE has met nearly every week since April, wrestling with the implications and opportunities associated with being a “special focus” university.
“Our job is to define what that means,” he said.
WIRE is on the cusp of sharing more broadly some thoughts about that definition.
“We have three recommendations we’re solidifying around and plan to present those to the Board of Regents in March,” Trudnowski said, noting they will be shared first with the Montana Tech campus.
He said the recommendations are still being vetted and are not yet ready for disclosure.
Meanwhile, the Program Prioritization Committee met for the first time Jan. 24. Chaired by Doug Abbott, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, the PPC has 15 members.
Abbott said the membership represents a cross section of the campus. Trudnowski serves also on the Program Prioritization Committee.
Chancellor Don Blackketter has said that “WIRE will offer more in terms of mission and special focus and will have little quantitative or program-specific recommendations.”
Abbott said “the PPC will take some of the work performed by WIRE into consideration in the program prioritization process.”
That prioritization process will, among other emphases:
• Consider reducing the number of faculty or other staff.
• Weigh the removal, realignment, enhancement, or improvement of existing programs at Montana Tech, both academic and non-academic.
• Examine the possibility of merging departments and enhancing collaboration across campus.
• Ponder capping enrollment in some programs.
• Establish clear alignments with industries the school’s programs support with graduates.
The committee also will discuss developing “metrics”, tangible measures that will help evaluate program performance. Blackketter said metrics for assessing academic performance likely will be different from those used to appraise non-academic programs.
Blackketter said Montana Tech began talking about program prioritization a few years ago. He said the committee is not a budgeting committee but that its recommendations will impact the university’s budget.
The PPC eventually will provide recommendations to the chancellor, who will make the final decisions, Blackketter said.
The initial plan was for WIRE to complete its work and make recommendations before the PPC’s work commenced.
“The recent budget issues caused the campus to move the Program Prioritization process to an earlier start date than originally planned,” Abbott said.
In December, Blackketter and Abbott said Montana Tech anticipated a budget shortfall of about $3 million for the coming fiscal year. The administrators said then that there would likely be layoffs of some professional and hourly staff during the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Trudnowski and Risser said the work of WIRE hasn’t drilled down to examine the pros and cons of existing programs at Montana Tech. They said the PPC — and ultimately Blackketter — will likely have to wrestle with tougher decisions than WIRE has had to ponder.
Still, Trudnowski said, there was some anxiety on campus when WIRE launched its work last year. He said that he senses the angst has lessened as people have recognized that the committee’s work was focused more on over-arching approaches to achieving the special focus mission than the pros and cons of specific programs.
And although nearly any change is hard, he said, it can also yield exciting opportunities for an institution like Montana Tech.
“Sometimes it’s good to shake your roots a little bit and get re-potted,” Trudnowski said.
Risser said people who work at Montana Tech tend to be passionate about the university and its role on the national, state, and local levels. That depth of caring is positive, she said, but can also “make for hard conversations sometimes” when potential change is afoot.
Trudnowski, co-chair of WIRE and a member of the PPC, acknowledged that although anxiety about WIRE’s work has ebbed, angst has been re-stirred in some quarters by the program prioritization group starting up.
Chris Danielson, a professor of history at Montana Tech and president of the Montana Tech Faculty Association, said Wednesday that it would be premature to weigh in about the prioritization process because no specific recommendations have been proposed.
“Any comment I offer at this point would be just mere speculation,” Danielson said.
Trudnowski and Risser said WIRE’s initial brainstorming and its related communication with smart and committed colleagues across the campus have been both gratifying and exciting.
“I think this has been really good for us,” Trudnowski said. “I think we’ll come out of this with a better idea of who we are.”
And he said a “special focus” university devoted to science, engineering, and health sciences will still need to provide students a well-rounded education, something industries that hire Montana Tech graduates desire.
“I guarantee we will have liberal arts faculty on this campus in the future,” he said.