by Keila Paller
The University of Montana has sent letters notifying an estimated 40 lecturers that their contracts will end on Dec. 31, 2017.
In the letter, Provost Beverly Edmond said individuals who do not have tenure “have no expectation to reappointment or renewal.”
“Per University Policy 350, the purpose of this letter is to give you one semester’s notice that your employment contract with the University of Montana will end as of December 31, 2017, and to clarify that at this time, we do not have an intent to provide you with a contract thereafter.”
President Sheila Stearns announced the notice in an email to the campus last week. A spokeswoman said UM intended to email the letter to lecturers Monday after sending hard copies Friday.
“The letters may be unsettling to recipients and their colleagues,” Stearns said. “This weighs heavily on my mind and those of the university’s campus leaders and executive team.”
The university has been cutting its budget because of enrollment declines and has already reduced faculty through attrition and early retirement buyouts. An estimated 41 tenured or tenure-track faculty out of 552 last school year won’t return, according to the most recent data from UM.
The letter to lecturers and decision to send it before the conclusion of a process to identify priority programs at UM have come under fire from the University Faculty Association. The association also alleges the notice is a breach of university policy.
University termination procedure notes that after the third consecutive year of service, lecturers “shall have the right to one semester’s notice of the intention to terminate the relationship.” In this case, the association argued the intention doesn’t in fact exist for all letter recipients.
“When President Stearns shared with me her intention to send out a blanket letter to all lecturers, knowing full well that many if not most would be rehired in the spring, I pointed out that this was an improper use of the policy and would likely result in grievances being filed,” wrote association President Paul Haber in a letter to lecturers.
UM legal counsel Lucy France said she was not aware of allegations that the letter was contrary to university policy but said she believes UM acted properly.
“All of UM’s management decisions, to our knowledge are in compliance with union contracts,” France said in an email.
Stearns did not confirm or deny that she had communicated UM would rehire many if not most of its lecturers come spring. In an email, though, she said UM has “excellent” lecturers, and she doesn’t take the notice lightly.
“I look forward to the day that UM might once again be able to guarantee lecturers longer term employment,” Stearns said. “But we are not in that situation now.
“It is important for our legal requirements, and frankly fair to them, to be clear that at this time, we do not have an intent to renew their contracts for Spring semester 2018.”
In an email to the Missoulian, the student newspaper, Edmond said enrollment is the driving factor behind the appointment of lecturers and other faculty.
“We set the schedule each academic year and begin registration for the spring in mid-fall semester,” Edmond said. “If the courses fill up or appear as if they will fill up, then the faculty scheduled to teach them are continued in the subsequent semester; in the case of lecturers or adjuncts, their (appointments) are extended. Therefore, it is not really possible to predict which courses, particularly for lecturers, will be needed.”
Haber, though, said the president told him UM intends to rehire many lecturers in the spring, and the blanket letter distributed “just in case we need to really fire you” is a misuse of policy.
“This decision is profoundly disappointing and we are worried reflects an approach from Administration that appears to be looking for what is politically and legally expedient rather than what is strategic or will improve the university for the students,” Haber wrote in a letter to members.
In a telephone interview, Haber said he had been lobbying the administration to hold off on sending the letter. He said the association interprets university policy to mean that letters go out when UM truly intends to terminate people.
In this case, he said, the administration has no intention of actually terminating all the lecturers who received notice. So the letter is being sent with a “wink, wink, here’s the deal.”
Haber also said he would prefer to see letters go out after the process to set priorities at UM concludes, including the identification of programs deemed a lower priority.
“If lecturers are in those programs, then of course, they’re going to be part of that curtailment,” Haber said. “But my argument was, let’s let the process go through.”
UM communications director Paula Short, though, said the letters giving notice shouldn’t be tied to the process to set priorities.
“In the near term, those two items are not connected simply because we have not completed program prioritization,” Short said. “We are still in the midst of that. Really, the decision is about maintaining the fiscal flexibility at the university.”
Kevin McRae, spokesman for the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, said UM will finish setting priorities in time to rehire lecturers for spring based on its conclusions.
He also said the faculty union already has a contract in place; lecturers who get letters have the right to one semester’s notice, and that’s what UM is providing.
“We already have a negotiated agreement through the University Faculty Association for the order in which faculty positions can and should be considered for reductions,” McRae said. “And the current collective bargaining agreement points us to and guides us to adjunct positions first.”