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UM President Seth Bodnar at an introductory press conference in The Payne Family Native American Center on Oct. 17, 2017.

The University of Montana has begun another effort to right its ailing budget, with the goal of identifying which academic programs UM will continue to fund and which ones will be targeted for cuts.

If that mission sounds familiar, it’s because it is a task UM has been attempting for a while now.

This endeavor is led by the University Planning Committee, a committee that existed at UM before being temporarily put on hold last year.

Over the next two months, the reconceived University Planning Committee, chaired by President Seth Bodnar, is slated to rewrite UM’s mission statement, identify “4 to 6 areas of excellence,” decide which academic departments don’t fit the new identity, and recommend cuts to those programs. Bodnar said the UPC’s goal is to have a clear plan to present to the Board of Regents in May outlining a path to closing budget gaps over the next four years.

This sounds similar to the goals of the Academic Programs and Administrative Services Prioritization task force, last year’s fraught attempt at ranking programs. But Bodnar and others on the UPC insist it will not function as “APASP 2.0,” but rather use APASP’s work as a starting point.

A key difference between the UPC and APASP is that the UPC will be looking at the money — how much money needs to be cut from the budget and how much programs cost — while APASP operated strictly based on data and written testimony from programs.

It’s still unclear how heavily APASP’s work will influence the UPC. In some of the committee members’ final remarks last semester, after ranking all academic programs, members of APASP showed skepticism of the task force’s process, acknowledging fundamental flaws in the data and methods used.

The two undergraduate student representatives on the UPC, ASUM President Braden Fitzgerald and Sen. Alexandria Schafer, raised concerns during the first UPC meeting Feb. 16 about how the UPC’s work will affect fall 2018 course offerings.

Fitzgerald said the immediate impact the UPC will have on the fall semester is still unclear, but said he will fight for transparency and opportunities for input from students throughout the process, rather than just feedback at the end.

“Students have to be able to graduate on time, so that is a priority, but we also can’t afford to get to the end of this process and not act,” Fitzgerald said. “We need campus to buy into the process, be involved and aware, and produce actionable items from this.”

The UPC has formed two subcommittees, with one focused on rewriting the University’s mission statement and the other focused on analyzing APASP and institutional data to inform decisions on where to cut. The second subcommittee is co-chaired by Megan Stark, faculty union vice president, and Paul Kirgis, dean of the law school. Both questioned the usefulness of much of APASP’s work during a Feb. 27 meeting.

The other subcommittee, tasked with rewriting a more concise and compelling mission statement, is set to wrap up the majority of its work within the next week, in order to provide a guide for the data subcommittee. The group, co-chaired by Fitzgerald and Dean of Health and Medicine Reed Humphrey will use input from the Strategic Plan Coordinating Council, APASP data and outside reports to determine UM’s areas of excellence.

Bodnar has asked the group to come up with four to six areas of excellence. He often uses health and medicine as examples of one area he sees as a must-have. Other potential areas of excellence discussed include ecology and sustainability, human interaction, and human expression. Programs not falling into the determined areas of excellence would be more susceptible to cuts.

Changes to academic curriculum must be reviewed by the Faculty Senate before those plans can be presented to the Board of Regents. This adds another layer of urgency to the process, as Faculty Senate needs enough time to properly review the changes before early May.

Members of the Senate executive team raised concerns about incoming students accepting scholarships for programs that could be cut as a result of the UPC. Students enrolled in a program must be “taught out” and graduate before the program can be eliminated. However, programs can be trimmed to a bare minimum while students are still enrolled. Deadlines for incoming students to accept scholarships generally fall before the UPC is scheduled to know which programs will be phased out, leaving incoming students in limbo.

To meet the rapidly approaching deadlines, the UPC subgroups are scheduled to meet multiple times per week, and the whole committee will meet once a week.

To help keep campus up to date on the work of the UPC, the Kaimin is starting a “reporter’s notebook” on our website, which will be updated after every UPC meeting, providing readers a brief and concise update on the process. The reporter’s notebook will supplement more in-depth stories and analysis of UM’s ongoing struggle to cut its budget and raise enrollment.