An accusation of possible religious preference described in the Missoulian newspaper received a fiery response from University of Montana President Royce Engstrom this morning, January 28.

In her piece, Coalition Questions Hiring Practices, Missoulian author Keila Szpaller's front page piece says: "Since [Perry] Brown took the post of interim provost at the University of Montana in 2010, the campus has filled several high-profile positions with people who share his Mormon faith or received their education at Utah State University."

In a letter hand-delivered to Perry Brown, Kent Haslam, Mike Reid, Martin Blair, and Nathan Lindsay, all of whom were associated with the religious question in Szpaller's piece, Engstrom said "The assertion by individuals on this campus and the reinforcement through a headline story that your religion has something to do with your selection or performance is ludicrous and, frankly, sad." Engstom goes on to say that religion "...played no role in the hiring of any of you."

"The president is deeply outraged that these accusations have been made on campus by colleagues against other colleagues and promoted by groups of people," said UM Vice President for Integrated Communications Peggy Kuhr. "He's outraged that we have gotten to this level of conversation and accusation, and then that these views, and a lot of misinformation, are being promoted by our local daily newspaper."

Engstrom's letter also challenges the journalistic integrity of the Missoulian saying that the accusation of religious selectivity was "groundless" and that more research was needed in the piece. Engstrom says the story represents "irresponsible journalism at best" and that "Missoula deserves better.”

Engstrom was not alone in challenging the Missoulian's credibility. UM's Deputy Commissioner for Communications & Human Resources Kevin McRae described the paper's January 28 edition as a "sad day in Montana journalism," and noted that the Missoulian's article originally included a hoax as fact.

"They've changed the story online today, but if you look at your morning print version, the Missoulian reported that a couple of years ago the Church of Latter Day Saints announced plans to buy Utah State University, which is a public, state, land-grant university... well, my ninth grade daughter this morning at breakfast was able to look on her phone and discern that that was an internet hoax," McRae said.

The UM administration also had strong words for a group called the UM Advocacy Council, a group that includes some UM professors, most vocally, history professor Mehrdad Kia.

"Our issue had nothing to do with anyone's religion, we brought up the issue of lack of transparency and openness in the various searches within the administration. We, in fact, did not start with anybody's religion, we started with President Engstrom's own selection as president of the University of Montana," Kia said.

UM administrators agree that when they spoke with Kia and others involved with the UM Advocacy Council, religious preference was not brought up.

Although it may not have been the "start" of the council's complaint, it appears that it certainly was included as a "rumor." In a letter written on behalf of the council and sent by Professor Kia is a sentence that reads, "UM has gained a notorious reputation where personal friendships, perceived loyalties, unquestioning obedience, and rumors of religious association appear to supersede concerns regarding competence, professionalism, and relevant experience."

"I don't quite understand what this UM Advocacy council is," McRae said. "It seems more like a UM Autopsy Council because they seem just bent on declaring the university dead when, in fact, their problem is that it is thriving."

Whether the issue is being driven by the Missoulian, or by someone involved in the UM Advocacy Council, or both, is unclear. McRae said that "whoever is pushing the allegation is being a bit elusive."

There will likely be more to this story, even a possible lawsuit. Kuhr said that the issue was "serious enough" that legal council and the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action had been approached by the Administration about the current environment at UM.

Below is President Engstrom's letter in full:

Dear Perry Brown, Kent Haslam, Mike Reid, Martin Blair, and Nathan Lindsay,

I want to offer my deepest apologies to you on behalf of the University of Montana community for the irresponsible story in this morning’s Missoulian on the topic of your religion. The assertion by individuals on this campus and the reinforcement through a headline story that your religion has something to do with your selection or performance is ludicrous and, frankly, sad. Religion has no place in the conversation regarding the selection of individuals for jobs and I will say unequivocally that it played no role in the selection of any of you.

Each of you was hired through a full and rigorous national search and each of you emerged as the most qualified individual to serve. I know quite well how each of you performs on the job, and you each serve with distinction and professionalism. I am proud to work with every one of you and I implore you to not let these shameful assertions color your view of this wonderful university and community.

As you know, we have a well-defined process on this campus for people to report what they view as discriminatory practice to our Equal Opportunity Officer. Not one complaint was ever filed regarding any of your hires and to my knowledge, not one complaint regarding religious bias in hiring has been brought forward in recent history. That individuals would blatantly ignore that process and instead come forward with a public assertion speaks to motives other than concern about hiring practices. That a prominent newspaper would make a headline story about such a groundless assertion, especially without ever asking our EEO office about the issue, is irresponsible journalism at best. Using words that the Missoulian itself used regarding the University a few years ago, “Missoula deserves better.”

With this letter, I am requesting that our Legal Counsel advise me as to whether any action is warranted in this matter. I doubt that there is, but I am formally asking, nonetheless. I will forward this letter to the entire campus and to the media and I want you to know that I am placing a call to the publisher of the Missoulian voicing my concern.

Again, I apologize for this most unfortunate and irresponsible action. Please know that I value your work tremendously and I respect your choice of religion. This kind of baseless accusation has no place on our campus.

Sincerely,
Royce C. Engstrom, President

Below is the letter from the UM Advocacy Council referenced in the Missoulian piece:

Friday, January 22, 2016

Dear Commissioner Christian,

We, the University of Montana Advocacy Coalition (UMAC), wish to extend our gratitude to you for making two hours of your valuable time available to hear our concerns and discuss proposed solutions to the critical problems at the University of Montana.

The agenda for the meeting included three specific categories: 1. How problems with the hiring procedures and staffing of top administrative positions at the University of Montana have led to management problems; 2. Current budget, and financing problems for UM and the Montana University System (MUS); 3. The effects of management decisions and procedures on academic programs and the future direction of our University.

We would like to summarize the discussion and reiterate some of our proposed solutions for each agenda item.

I. Staffing and hiring procedures.
Preface: In the past four years, questionable hiring practices at the UM and the MUS have eroded the confidence of university employees in the credibility of the current administration, and forced members of the UM faculty to consider the possibility of a vote of “no confidence” in the president and the provost. Recruitment and hiring searches have lacked the essential openness, transparency, and diversity that a public university requires. Instead of a campus culture that takes pride in competence and diversity, UM has gained a notorious reputation where personal friendships, perceived loyalties, unquestioning obedience, and rumors of religious associations appear to supersede concerns regarding competence, professionalism, and relevant experience. The campus community feels that a greater inclusion of women and members of ethnic minority groups in the present administration are essential to build a university for the global century. Equally problematic has been the practice of moving select favorites into interim positions as a means of elevating them to a permanent position, thereby bypassing a proper process. Rather than a community of gifted, accomplished, capable, professional, and productive administrators we have drifted toward an insular group without the breadth and diversity that is essential for outstanding leadership. We urge you to stand with us for open and transparent national searches to recruit the best and most-qualified individuals for all administrative positions, including the positions vacated by Vice President Teresa Branch and Provost Brown.

Discussion: UMAC participants expressed concerns about excessive use of internal hires to fill senior and key administrative positions at UM and throughout the MUS. This practice can be construed as patronage that could contribute to a lack of diversity, loss of confidence, substandard leadership, and questionable management practices. There was a consensus that the low salaries offered by the MUS often limit the quality and availability of candidates that respond to both advertisements and offers. However, the UMAC contributors felt that there are structural issues that could be resolved to improve the process. An example of PACE grant procedures previously used by UM to successfully generate diverse, high-quality applicant pools with subsequent successful hires was provided.

UMAC Recommendation: The MUS Board of Regents (BOR) should conduct a system-wide review of recruitment and hiring practices that includes independent, outside consultation and review of previous administrative hires with the goal of revealing structural problems (not individual, situational reviews or reopening of positions/hires). The review should generate new or revised BOR and UM policies that include: 1. Strategies to attract highly qualified candidates regardless of the low salary ranges; 2. A diversity policy that has enforcement procedures; 3. Procedures that minimize patronage (or the perception thereof) with enforcement mechanisms. 4. Specifically, Office of Commissioner of Higher Education (OCHE) and the BOR should assure that the recruitment and hiring process to replace Provost Brown and Vice President Teresa Branch meet these criteria and the high standards expected of a public university.

II. UM and MUS Budgeting and Financing
Preface: The layoffs and program cuts at UM and Missoula College have been caused by a revenue shortage due to structural problems and errors in the budget and finance processes both at UM and the MUS. Members of the UMAC recognize the necessity of simultaneously increasing revenues at UM while continuing to provide affordable education and increased access that will reverse the declining enrollment. Specifically, members of the UMAC recommended the following: All UM advocates should challenge our U.S. senators, our U.S. congressman, the Governor and the BOR to endorse one of the current, national “Debt Free Degrees” proposals for higher education, thereby increasing the proportion of Montana high school graduates who attend UM. Montana must also have a state “Debt Free Degrees” plan by updating, implementing, and funding BOR policy 940.30. We also believe that the BOR must act to increase enrollment and reduce the waste that occurs through unproductive competition between MUS campuses. This can be achieved by reducing money wasted on recruitment competition between campuses and then constructing an OCHE database with equal access for MUS campuses to contact high school students. Current MCA code must be changed to allow the MUS access to contact information for Montana high school students.

Discussion: The discussion focused on a revenue shortage as the fundamental source of the current UM budget deficit and the resultant current round of job cuts at the University of Montana. The discussion moved on to how revenues could be increased in the future. The revenue shortage was caused by the four-year tuition freeze, combined with the “tuition gap” between the two flagship campuses, and declining enrollment. In short, the UMAC showed that UM’s tuition was frozen at a rate below cost in FY2014, resulting in revenue losses at UM that will amount to $15–20 million over the four-year freeze, through FY 2017. Subsequent discussion centered on how to close the $700 tuition gap ($6,100 vs. $6,800) and how that would impact student affordability and enrollment. There was a consensus that sudden, steep increases in UM tuition are both unlikely and undesirable. UMAC contributors proposed that the MUS campuses had to be able to raise tuition to avoid future budget problems and layoffs. However, the BOR must devise mechanisms to offset the impact of tuition increases on low- and middle-income students, keeping their net costs at or below inflation. The current data, namely, continuous low enrollment and increasing student loan debt over the last three years (FY2014–2016), show that tuition freezes are not a viable, long-term policy to fund higher education or make it more affordable and accessible. Although tuition freezes keep tuition low, they block a revenue stream from high-income students who can afford the higher levels, amounting to a subsidy for high-income students and a subsequent revenue loss for the university. Likewise, tuition freezes block a market stream because they do not provide the necessary, sufficient, and immediate funding to provide access for low- and middle-income students to the MUS. UMAC contributors, therefore, recommended MTAP and debt-free degrees to increase direct funding to students. That direct funding device allows for both tuition increases and increased enrollment as a means to increase UM revenues. There is also a need to increase efforts to market higher education, and specifically UM, with a more positive image. Members of the UMAC also communicated a wide-spread complaint from campus and the public that the budgeting process was not open; there is a lack of participation from faculty and academic units in the budgeting process and UM financial/budget information was/is not readily available or forthcoming upon request. Moreover, the process to develop the current cuts and layoffs seems confused—with poor planning, execution, and communication. There is a general, substantial, and growing lack of confidence in the budgeting process and leadership at both UM and the MUS.

UMAC Recommendations: 1. The BOR should reexamine current apportionment of state funds intended to “pay for” the FY2014–17 tuition freeze, or seek other revenues to allow some recovery of the FY2014–17 revenue losses at UM that resulted from the tuition freeze/tuition gap. Those funds should be used to mitigate the current layoffs and program cuts and to prevent another round of such cuts in FY 2017. 2. UM must be allowed to raise tuition for FY 2018 to both close the tuition gap and to raise revenue. 3. To mitigate the impact of such a sudden, steep tuition increase on low- and middle-income students, the MUS should update and implement BOR policy 940.30, the Montana Tuition Assistance Program (MTAP). MTAP would also increase access and affordability for the low-income market to increase UM and MUS enrollment. 3. MTAP awards to students should be based on an algorithm that weighs means and merit only (without political interference from factors such as program or campus preferences). 4. The BOR should develop a fund to finance MTAP. The fund should derive revenues from a legislative appropriation whereby the funds used to “pay for” the tuition freeze are dedicated to the MTAP fund; and a portion of, or a surcharge from, revenues derived from non-state student fees or tuition; and fees imposed on Montana students; and other revenue sources. 6. The BOR should conduct a comprehensive review of tuition rates and policies across the MUS. 7. Tuition rates must be reviewed annually and adjusted to generate sufficient revenue, when combined with other revenues, to meet costs; or costs must be reduced. 8. Long-term budgeting and planning must be implemented to prevent budget anomalies, precipitous tuition increases, or cost reductions/layoffs (e.g., UM’s current situation); 9. The UM budgeting process should be conducted through the UM budget committee with full and open participation by the faculty, staff, students, and units (academic, auxiliary, etc.) in a manner expected and worthy of a public institution and in a manner that will renew public confidence in UM and the process.

III. Academic
Preface: The chronic lack of a stable financing source and the resulting acute and chronic budget cuts at the University has degraded the structure and integrity of our academic programs. The long-term cost shift of the financial burden from the state to students with the subsequent explosion of student loans, combined with continuous academic program cuts and low morale among university employees has caused a crisis of confidence by students and potential students in higher education and the University of Montana. Hence, our failure to increase either enrollment or the proportion of the public attending college. Three years ago, the Governor and the BOR agreed on a goal that 60% of Montanans will have a college degree by 2020. The budget cuts, layoffs, and cancellation/degradation of academic programs, with the subsequent loss of faith by this generation in education make achievement of that goal very unlikely. A public university depends on the public for its funding and support. The academic and scholarly achievements of the faculty and students are the best means to both engender and sustain that public confidence. We cannot budget cut our way to excellence. It is, therefore, imperative upon the Commissioner, the BOR, and the administration to do everything in their power to preserve the cohesiveness and integrity of the existing curriculum, while providing the necessary changes to adapt to the modern world and economy. The worst justification for degrading the curriculum is that we need to adjust ourselves to the changing needs of the job market, and replace solid and cohesive courses of study, based in our 122-year liberal arts tradition, with disjointed and fragmented programs that may or may not provide students with gainful employment upon graduation. The idea of adding new fields and areas of study should not be used as a justification for degrading the curriculum. When the university added a Department of Computer Sciences, because computers had begun to play an indisputably pivotal role in our everyday lives, it did not, in turn, eliminate the departments of Political Science, Anthropology, and Foreign Languages.

Discussion: Members of the UMAC emphasized throughout the meeting that the university community is gravely concerned about the effect of the administration’s policies and decisions, through cuts or attrition, on the UM curriculum that has been built through decades of hard work by our faculty. The perception is that the current process is vague and arbitrary, made by a few individuals in Main Hall, without any consultation with the faculty, deans, chairs, or students. A list has been compiled with targeted departments and a specified number of cuts to be sustained by each college and professional school. Requests for the data and the rationale for how the administration generated the list of program cuts and layoffs have remained unanswered. Arbitrary decisions about cutting courses have eroded the confidence of students and faculty in the ability of the present administration to address academic concerns constructively. The UMAC provided that continuous vacancy savings have created departmental and programmatic imbalances whereby critical and required courses cannot be taught in a timely manner (or at all) so that many students cannot graduate on time. Programs in foreign/global studies lack the personnel and resources that many students desire to achieve proper perspectives on the diverse American population and world economy. Members of the UMAC and the commissioner strongly agreed that the best marketing tool for a university is its curriculum and the personnel to deliver it.

UMAC Recommendations: 1. Provide an open and transparent academic planning process with input from all UM stakeholders, and review the current reduction plan for long-term financial and programmatic efficacy. 2. Eliminate unnecessary and unproductive overlap of academic programs and consolidate resources within the MUS. 3. Make UM THE MUS-designated health education campus. 4. Create WWHAMI slots at UM with new programs in nursing (as UM independent), physician assistance, and occupational therapy. Coordinate these with our existing programs in Physician Residency, Pharmacy, Physical Therapy, Health and Human Performance, Human Biology, Communication Disorders, Psychology, and Social Work. 5. Establish a task force to revise and promote the humanities, liberal and creative arts at UM; and find novel means to coordinate those traditional programs in the arts with other programs to provide marketable skills for employment. 6. UM Students and the MUS Board of Regents must present a plan to support graduate education, research and creative arts/activities. 7. The cuts in graduate assistantships should be rescinded, and a fund should be created to support grants for faculty/student scholarly activity programs.

Once again, we appreciate your time and consideration to both listen to our concerns and to discuss our ideas for solutions. We all agreed that the University of Montana is our heartfelt concern. We also appreciate your understanding that our criticisms were not personal in nature, but rather a means to define problems that urgently require collective solutions. Moreover, our coalition insists that when we criticize, we must also offer constructive solutions. We would, therefore, like to take you up on your offer to meet again very soon to discuss our recommendations and suggestions for solutions.

With best regards,

The University of Montana Advocacy Coalition