Montana State University File, MSU

Snow melts slowly off the Montana State University Sign on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019, at the corner of West College Street and South 11th Avenue.

Six months after Montana State University’s controversial merger of the Cell Biology and Neuroscience department into a larger department, MSU is asking the Board of Regents to give its belated approval.

At Wednesday’s Faculty Senate meeting, about 30 professors heard CBN faculty members blast the way that Provost Bob Mokwa, the university’s No. 2 administrator, conducted the merger.

Steve Stowers, an associate professor, accused Mokwa of “a failure of leadership,” violating regents’ procedures, denying due process to CBN students and professors, and jeopardizing students’ educations and futures.

Mokwa said after the meeting that he sees the merger as succeeding. Stowers is entitled to his opinion, Mokwa said, but as provost he had acted on a report by a 16-member faculty committee that reviewed the effectiveness of all doctoral programs.

The report found CBN had failed to live up to its promises of training more graduate students, expanding research, publishing more scientific papers and taking on typical teaching loads.

“I am very focused on looking to the future,” Mokwa said. “I’ve encouraged by the overwhelming support” for the merger from other faculty members.

CBN’s former department head first went public with criticisms of MSU’s plans to change the department in January, and considerable controversy followed. By May, Mokwa announced he was merging CBN into the larger Microbiology & Immunology Department.

Ed Schmidt, an MBI professor, told the Faculty Senate that at a hurriedly convened meeting, professors from both departments were “overwhelmingly supportive and optimistic” about the merger. They’ve been working hard to make it successful and solve problems, Schmidt said, but “we need more help.”

Already four CBN classes have had to be canceled and it would have been more, Schmidt said, if the faculty wasn’t making heroic efforts to fill in. The main challenge now is they need to hire more tenure-track faculty, Schmidt said, but the provost hasn’t approved filling openings.

Schmidt said there are still angry feelings about how the merger occurred, but not about the future of the combined department.

“There are wounds that are going to need to heal,” he said. “We’re really making this work. It’s an enormous effort.

“We believed there would be authority to hire by now, and we would not be in a crisis.”

Frances Lefcort, a CBN professor, called the merger a “unilateral, top-down dismemberment” of her department, which has lost half its 10 tenured faculty members. None were fired but some took leaves or left for other universities.

“The destruction of CBN is now history,” Lefcort said, and MSU expects people to rubber stamp it after the fact.

Students have been hurt, Lefcort charged, because a key CBN foundations class is taught by adjunct faculty without the same depth of background and at least five classes had to be canceled.

“Who are the losers? The students, of course,” she said.

Stowers said the issue is going to the regents now because three weeks ago, he, Lefcort and faculty member Jamie Mazer sent a complaint to the commissioner of higher education charging that MSU failed to seek regents’ approval for the merger.

Stowers defended CBN, saying it had done an “outstanding” job, brought in millions of research dollars on brain research and other research, and its students had an acceptance rate into medical schools 20% higher than the national average.

Answering a senator’s question, Stowers said he likes being part of the larger, merged department, but “it’s impossible for the merger to be successful without additional resources.”

Eric Austin, Faculty Senate chair, said that the merger will be on the Board of Regents agenda when it meets in Bozeman Nov. 21 and 22. He said the senators were being asked for comments to forward to the regents, not for a vote on the merger. Austin said he’d collect comments up to 5 p.m. Monday.

Mokwa said as far as hiring goes, the merged department will be treated fairly and its request for new hires will be considered along with all other departments’ requests.

“I’m very optimistic about the direction this is heading with the leadership of Mark Jutila,” the MBI department head, Mokwa said. “I see a lot of benefit for our students.”

Last spring CBN students collected more than 500 signatures on petitions protesting the merger. Several students said they feared the merger would hurt the value of their degrees and their chances of getting into medical schools. They accused MSU leaders of not listening to students.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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