UM professors who are currently protected by union contracts could be at much greater risk to budget cuts soon.

Faculty must be reduced across nearly every academic department to meet budget goals. Montana’s Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education wants to amend the rules of its contract with the University Faculty Association to loosen the rules for firing employees.

Under current contracts, the University must go through a process called retrenchment, which protects senior and tenured professors, to cut faculty for financial reasons. This means the University would have to start cuts with the newest faculty in a program and cut all non-tenured faculty before it could cut any tenured faculty. Tenure is the guarantee of a permanent job, within the limits of the contract, that eligible faculty can apply for after five years at UM.

The UFA periodically negotiates its contract with OCHE, headed by Commissioner Clayton Christian. OCHE wants to change the rules of retrenchment and allow the University to cut faculty without going through retrenchment.

“It’s to be expected,” UFA president Paul Haber said. “Management wants to have more control and discretion over the workforce.”

Non-tenurable positions, like adjunct professors, are hired on a short-term basis. Adjuncts have little to no job security. UM Policy 350 limits the portion of non-tenurable positions to 25 percent or less of any department, school or college. This means that the majority of every department, school and college across campus is filled with faculty that would have to be retrenched to be cut.

“Our collective bargaining agreements don’t allow us, from year to year, to actually bring tenured faculty into the equation as to how a campus might adjust its staffing,” said Kevin McRae, deputy commissioner of human resources at the OCHE.

UM Provost and Executive Vice President Jon Harbor recently released instructional budget targets, which will significantly reduce the amount of money available to pay professors in most academic departments. To make these budget goals, retrenchment and the firing of tenured professors must be considered.

Harbor presented the annual report on ratios of non-tenurable faculty to the Faculty Senate on Sept. 20. He reported every school and college was under 25 percent non-tenurable, except for Missoula College. 

Missoula College faculty, which has a separate union, has been over 50 percent non-tenurable for years. This is in violation of UM policy.

Tom Gallagher, president of the Missoula College faculty union, said last spring that the proportion of non-tenurable positions is a threat to collective bargaining. Collective bargaining allows UM and Missoula College faculty to have a say in any academic issues that arise.

At the department level, data provided by the Provost’s Office indicate eight departments at UM are over 25 percent non-tenurable faculty, not including departments at Missoula College.

McRae said OCHE recognizes the importance of tenure and would still include seniority as a factor in deciding who gets cut.

“There’s a cost to our current procedures,” McRae said. “When new positions open up and become vacant, we’re more likely to air on the side of turning it into a non-tenure track position.”

Haber said the union declined OCHE’s suggestions in the last round of negotiations. He said OHCE wants to continue to discuss the issue in good faith and he is always willing to hear what the office has to say.

McRae said one idea is to reduce faculty by half the percent of a revenue drop. If revenue dropped by 2 percent, the University could cut 1 percent of faculty within one year. He said OCHE is open to anything the union thinks might work.

McRae said OCHE is interested in including other metrics, like input from students and fellow faculty in the department.

The current union-OCHE contract ends on June 30, 2021. Haber said the UFA and OCHE have preliminary talks in December, but negotiations won’t start until next spring.

“I think that the union helps, in an important way, to preserve the quality of education at the University of Montana,” Haber said.