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Posted: Thursday, March 28, 2013 10:15 pm | Updated: 12:29 am, Fri Mar 29, 2013.

During a College of Arts and Sciences meeting with department chairs on Thursday morning, Dean Chris Comer briefed his staff on new information from Main Hall regarding cuts. He had just received a new packet of information, which he said he would disperse to his department heads later that day. 

In the packet, he said, there is a notice about how to terminate staff. The document, divided into sections, starts with adjuncts. The first bullet point: “No constraints.” The second bullet point: “If long term, might want to help with health insurance for some period.” 

“They wouldn’t be giving us this notice if it wasn’t serious,” Comer said to a group of more than 25 people, “Not every unit will have to cut adjuncts, but almost all of us will.” 

University of Montana Provost Perry Brown is responsible for advancing the interests of undergraduate, graduate and professional education on campus and advocating for academic priorities. Right now, that means he is responsible for guiding how potential cuts could be handled in each section of Academic Affairs, or all programs and departments that deal with education, instruction and research. 

“A while ago, I told the deans to start preparing for reductions of 2, 4 and 8 percent,” Brown said. A backdrop of stacks of papers and folders covered nearly every inch of the desk behind him.  “They all looked at those potential consequences. Now we are looking back at an 8 percent reduction. I don’t expect that is where we are going to be.”

Brown said tenured faculty members — and those who are on a tenure track — are protected from cuts. Teaching Assistants, he said, should remain largely uncut since most of the TAs are funded out of a lump sum pool controlled by the Graduate School and will not face heavy cuts. Adjunct positions, or teachers and lecturers who are not protected by contracts, are the most vulnerable to not being rehired.

“The most vulnerable are adjuncts,” Brown said. “Much more vulnerable.” 

Right now, Brown said he is doing cautionary planning, which means he is asking deans to plan for higher potential reduction than is actually anticipated. Brown said he would rather have deans plan for higher cuts now, then add resources later, rather than have to make plans for more cuts in the future. 

 “If we have a reduction,” Brown said, “undoubtedly there will be fewer adjunct possibilities because there is no flexibility to go to the tenure-track people.” 

According to the Office of Budget, Planning and Analysis in fall semester, there were 359 adjunct professors teaching classes across UM. Similarly, there were 365 graduate or doctoral students receiving tuition waivers and a $4,500 or $7,400 stipend per semester for their roles as teaching assistants: meaning they either taught a course, the lab for a course, or assisted a professor in teaching their course. 

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s crowdsourcing effort that began in February of 2012 — the Adjunct Project — found that, nationally, about 22 percent of adjuncts reported that they were union members, while 70 percent reported that they didn’t participate in faculty governance at the schools they taught. Another 79 percent of adjuncts reported being ineligible for retirement benefits or health insurance. On average, adjuncts reported making $3,000 per three-credit course. The Chronicle of Higher Education also found that nationally, about 64 percent of the instructional faculty at four-year colleges is off the tenure track. 

The largest college on campus, the College of Arts and Sciences, covers more than 23 academic departments from anthropology to chemistry to Native American studies and foreign languages. If CAS is asked to cut 5 percent of its budget, that translates to almost $1 million, or slightly more than a quarter of the combined $3.5 million that would be cut from Academic Affairs (meaning the total amount that every school combined has to cut). 

Comer said in an interview Monday that there hasn’t been any direct action taken in the departments he oversees, and he only has potential percentage amounts of cuts to prepare for, but he has communicated with his department chairs. Comer agrees that while most of his tenured or tenure track staff should feel secure in their positions, adjuncts are vulnerable. Comer said he expects TA cuts to be “very modest.”

Comer said one possibility to meet the demand of cuts is to drop adjuncts with a full course load to part-time, at a rate where they are still eligible to receive benefits. 

“We are looking for the most humane way to do this,” Comer said. 

Comer said the faculty in his departments is looking for other ways to save, including not hiring positions that have been left empty due to professors retiring. Vacancy savings could absorb some of the financial burden of budget cuts, but Comer said that would not create enough in savings to solve the problem. 

“We aren’t unilaterally saying ‘you cut these things.’ We are having discussions,” Comer said. 

Michel Valentin is a tenured French professor in modern and classical languages and literatures, a department in the College of Arts and Sciences. His department is discussing potentially cutting adjuncts as one of many solutions to reach their percentage of instituted cuts. 

Some of these adjuncts, Valentin said — like those in Spanish — have been at UM for many years and they assume their jobs are secured. If all of the adjuncts are gone, Valentin said, the professors would be stretched thin teaching those lower level courses. 

“Cutting adjuncts doesn’t make sense,” Valentin said. “Sixty-five percent of courses are taught by adjuncts. They are very vulnerable. They have no unions and they are already under the thumb of the administration.” 

Valentin said he thinks the state should help make up for the potential budget deficits at UM. 

“Montana is one of the few states with a budget surplus. What do they do with all of that money? They should invest it in higher education,” Valentin said. 

The chair of the history department, John Eglin, said they are having the same conversations as other departments. 

“We’ve been told to cut 5 percent. That doesn’t seem like much, but when you’re dealing with a budget of $1.2 million, that’s about $60,000. That’s a very big percentage.” 

Eglin said that in history there aren’t many expendable positions because a majority of the instructors are tenured. They are discussing taking the phones out of faculty offices, a savings of about $4,500 per year. Still, that’s barely a dent in their overall budget. 

“We might have a hero in the Legislature who will come in and save us from being laid across the tracks,” Eglin said, knowing his hopes were unlikely to come to fruition. 

Rather, Eglin said that he knows he needs to be ready to say what his department is willing to give up. 

“A cut this deep certainly means non-tenured people are vulnerable.” 

Eglin said some departments have had their TAs sequestered. “They haven’t been cut,” Eglin said, “but they are being held back until more is known.” 

Already, the history department is not able to fill two positions that became vacant in 2011 after two tenured faculty retired. Eglin knows he has another tenured professor retiring in the next year, and he doesn’t know if he will be able to fill that position until the new fiscal year starts in July. Not filing these positions provides vacancy savings to the CAS. 

Nabil Haddad, the chair of psychology, another department in the CAS, faces similar issues to Eglin. Haddad declined to be interviewed, but did email six bullet points regarding his staffing for 2013-2014. He has one adjunct in his department who teaches six sections of four different courses during the year. He said he will receive funding for 19 TA positions, one fewer than he has now. His department also has 12-14 research assistantships, created by grants and contracts by psychology faculty. 

As his final point, Haddad wrote, “As chair of a department, I have no authority to fire anybody. Should there be any such action, it will have to be taken by executive officers, and certainly not by me.”

Perhaps more than in other schools or colleges on campus, TAs are more vulnerable in the CAS.

TAs are funded in two ways: the Graduate School allocates a lump sum of money to various schools to pay TAs, then that school divides that money among departments. However, money from the Graduate School is not considered a part of another school’s base budget. For example the Business School couldn’t cut their Graduate School TA funding and count that cut toward their budget. Some schools do fund TAs separately from the Graduate School. In that case, cutting a TA would count as cutting a portion of the department’s budget.

CAS has a large number of TAs, Brown said, and those TAs are supported by CAS and could be affected.

Graduate Student Association co-President and student director of the Student Involvement Network Dan Biehl is also working within SIN to prepare for cuts. Although Biehl has never worked as a TA, he understands that those tuition waivers are what attract graduate and doctoral students to UM.

“If they didn’t have those, they wouldn’t be here, really and truly,” Biehl said of his friends who are TAs. “Especially for out-of-staters, it is so important to have those dollars.”

Biehl said he tried unsuccessfully to get a TA position this semester, but knows that with budget cuts it will only get more difficult in the future. Beihl said those tuition waivers are important to the school because they cut back on the payroll costs of hiring an adjunct or professor to teach courses.

To lose even one TA position, Biehl said, could mean a graduate student can’t afford to stay at UM, which might be a matter of starting their program over at a different institution.

Biehl offered a solution to the cuts.

“Sometimes, you have to cut administrators,” Biehl said. “One administrator is the equivalent of two professors.”

Meanwhile, Brown is reminding people to stay calm because nothing is for sure. It’s possible there won’t be cuts, or they won’t be as extreme as planned.

“I can’t get myself in a frenzy,” Brown said. “We are approaching this in a systematic way. Some good things are happening too.”

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