Debbie Fillmore received word in 2015 that the program she led at Missoula College was an enrollment driver primed for growth.
An assessment of 105 programs at the University of Montana had identified just 10 as "ready for growth," including Fillmore's small but robust Surgical Technology unit.
The report noted that with additional staff, those programs could take off.
It found, for example, that:
• Media Arts had "a great need" for a faculty member in sound.
• Health and Human Performance needed more faculty to handle an increased student load.
•The graduate program of the School of Public and Community Health Sciences needed additional instructors.
But the additional resources never materialized. And now, at least some programs identified as set for growth in 2015 are instead losing faculty.
Fillmore, former associate professor and once head of Surgical Technology, took an early retirement buyout, and she's one of multiple faculty members leaving from programs earlier identified as ready to grow, according to data from UM.
In the meantime, UM has embarked on another similar undertaking to review programs. To some, it sounds like déjà vu.
Fillmore, for one, said she remains frustrated and disheartened that UM identified enrollment drivers in 2015 but then did little to support them.
"How are we supposed to recruit the numbers we're supposed to recruit when there's no money — and I mean zero money — budgeted for the outreach?" Fillmore said.
In June 2015, the Academic Alignment and Innovation Program issued a final report noting areas that were ready to grow and ones that were struggling.
Faculty involved in the assessment didn't want the outcome to be used as a justification to cut programs. But that fall, then-President Royce Engstrom announced UM needed to make reductions. He identified programs to strengthen based in part on that review, and he also named targets for cuts based on low enrollment.
Even after layoffs and other reductions announced in January 2016, though, officials from the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education said UM still needed to trim faculty. In fact, if UM didn't shift resources from programs that were losing students, it was "dragging down the programs ... that are growing or have the potential to grow," said spokesman Kevin McRae in November 2016.
This summer, some programs earlier pegged as "ready for growth" are instead losing employees, according to data from UM:
- In Media Arts, two of seven tenured and tenure-track faculty are leaving.
- Health and Human Performance is losing two out of 13.
- School of Public and Community Health Sciences is losing two out of six.
The most recent data from UM shows that overall, 41 faculty out of 552 will not return this school year. Some faculty took buyouts, some left for other reasons, and President Sheila Stearns has said only faculty considered "mission critical" will be replaced.
Tony Ward, chair of the School of Public and Community Health Sciences, said his program has already filled one position and will fill another by Jan. 1 because accreditation requires it.
Faculty are working hard to recruit students, and the program is launching new degrees and developing new partnerships, he said. He said he doesn't have a sense of how the program compares to others on campus, but he said the process to set priorities may benefit UM in unexpected ways in the end.
"Sometimes, in the darkest times, there will be opportunities that rise out of it. I don't know. I guess time will tell," Ward said.
Rick Hughes, in Media Arts, said he keeps his focus squarely on students. People in his program have revamped classes, completely rethought educational models, and roped in graduate students, "the unsung heroes in all of this," to deal with budget realities, he said.
"I'm not going to sit here and say that it's been a fun ride," Hughes said. "It's been a real struggle. But you find out what people are made of."
Since the earlier process identified Media Arts as "ready for growth," the program lost a staff member and finished last year with no staff, he said. He himself did clerical work last year, but as he sees it, the old review isn't relevant anymore.
At the end of the day, Hughes said he isn't looking for a pat on the back from Main Hall, but for positive outcomes for students. And Media Arts continues to get praise from those it teaches.
"We're taking hits financially. Anybody with two eyes can see that. We're losing money. We lost a staff member. It has not been good.
"But we haven't lost so much that we haven't been able to do what we do and plan for the future," Hughes said.
Shannon O'Brien, dean of Missoula College, said the Surgical Technology program is expensive, and initial labor statistics indicate it was producing 13 or 14 graduates a year when only nine or 10 were needed.
That program has had satellite offices in Billings and Butte, and O'Brien said the college will help students who are already admitted or in the pipeline finish their degrees. But it may not enroll students in Billings in spring 2019, and she said there does not appear to be current demand in Butte.
UM is taking "a big step back" to learn which programs and services are most needed, she said, and Missoula College doesn't plan to bolster Surgical Technology and recruit students to it until it has more information.
"We're not making promises that we don't know if we'll be able to keep," O'Brien said.
Fillmore, who helped build the program into one a national accreditation body considered a model, said it placed 100 percent of its graduates, counted a 100 percent pass rate on national exams, and served the communities in which it operated.
When she learned the program might phase out its offsite locations despite the review in 2015, she decided to take a buyout.
"That was the straw that broke the camel's back. I could not stay and watch that program go," Fillmore said.
The earlier program review and subsequent cuts appear to have left UM still needing to shift resources.
Stearns said she's asked herself why UM seems stuck in the same place, and she doesn't know the answer. But Stearns, serving in an interim capacity since December 2016, also said she's committed to seeing the current process through to the end.
Last fall, McRae said shifting resources at UM is difficult because of faculty pushback and media attention.
Former President Engstrom could not be reached for comment, but Stearns agreed the process will be difficult. She also said she has strategies that provide some insulation.
The process of reviewing programs and setting priorities is being conducted in the open, it's collaborative, and it is compiling a vast amount of information, she said. Stearns said she doesn't mind if people disagree with her decisions, and she's certain some will.
"But I think it will be unlikely that it's asserted that I made them on the basis of inadequate information or without enough consultation," Stearns said.
She also said she doesn't want to push decisions "down the trail," and she does want to leave the table set for a new president so UM can build a timely budget next year without starting the process over again. Recruitment is underway for a permanent president at UM.
"Every bit of presidential muscle I can put behind this, I have been putting there," Stearns said. "And we will come to conclusions. And when we do, I may not be popular with everyone, but that's OK.
"Presidents never are."