MSU Wild

Students walk between classes through a steady snow on Wednesday afternoon, Oct. 23, 2019, in front of Montana Hall.

Montana State University President Waded Cruzado gave a spirited defense Friday of the university’s controversial decision to merge the Cell Biology and Neuroscience Department and said many criticisms are based on “big misunderstandings.”

The seven-member Montana Board of Regents, at the end of their two-day meeting on the Bozeman campus Friday, voted unanimously to approve merging CBN with the larger Microbiology and Immunology Department, one of MSU’s most successful research departments.

The regents voted the day after seven students and two faculty members protested how MSU Provost Bob Mokwa went about merging their department, which has 314 student majors. They argued that it’s hurting students because half the faculty isn’t available for teaching, several classes have been canceled, some are being taught by less qualified substitutes, there aren’t enough research opportunities and this could jeopardize students’ futures and chances of getting into medical schools.

Rep. Tom Woods, D-Bozeman and MSU adjunct instructor, interjected his own criticisms during the regents’ joint meeting with the Legislature’s Education Interim Committee.

Woods said that the merger was not handled well and charged that CBN has “lost” five of 10 faculty members. He said there is “conjecture” that the University System plans to make the University of Montana the state’s center for neuroscience education and research, because UM has been running TV ads urging students to come study brain science on the Missoula campus.

Woods also said he believes that weakening CBN puts MSU’s coveted status as a top-tier Carnegie research university “in peril.” He argued the state should invest in neuroscience at both flagship campuses, because it’s one of the fastest-growing research fields.

Clay Christian, commissioner of higher education, responded that he’s not aware of any plan like Woods described. Christian added the University System would do everything it can to keep MSU’s top Carnegie research status.

“I think there is a big misunderstanding here,” Cruzado said. “We have not lost five faculty in cell biology and neuroscience.”

The department has nine tenured or tenure-track positions, and two of those faculty members are on voluntary leave, which means they have a right to return to their jobs, Cruzado said. Faculty can take leave for family or medical issues, sabbaticals or leave without pay.

“A leave does not mean they have left.” Cruzado said.

“I cannot replace what has not been lost.”

She said a third person sometimes cited as “lost,” Renee Reijo Pera, MSU’s former vice president for research, did have a right to return to a teaching position at CBN and biochemistry, but she never exercised that option so that position never existed.

“I totally support Provost Mokwa,” Cruzado said, adding that he spent many hours on the issue, and she participated in many meetings and reached out to Faculty Senate leaders to see if they could help find a compromise.

“I totally agree about the importance of cell biology and neuroscience research,” Cruzado said. “I get it.”

But public demands for hiring more CBN faculty can’t supersede the provost’s hiring decisions, which have to be based on the greatest need, Cruzado said. “What do I do morally with the good number of departments that exceed expectations?”

“We will continue to provide support for CBN in its new home” within microbiology, she said.

Now it’s time for “healing,” Cruzado said, and “leaving this chapter behind us.”

Regent Chair Casey Lozar said despite their criticisms, several students and faculty members agreed that the merger was actually a good idea. He said the regents asked all the campuses a couple years ago to set priorities, and that’s what MSU did, resulting in the merger.

“We have to focus on the healing process,” Lozar said. “It’s been bumpy.”

Regents Martha Sheehy and John Miller agreed, suggesting that the campus leaders be proactive and work with CBN students to move forward.

After reviewing 21 doctoral programs, MSU rated four, including CBN as needing improvement, based on low numbers of graduate students and low faculty teaching loads. CBN professors argued it was a highly successful department, bringing in millions of dollars in research grants, helping its students earn top national scholarships and a medical school acceptance rate 20% higher than national averages.

Mokwa said that CBN does have a high acceptance rate but some other departments — microbiology, chemical and biological engineering and the post-baccalaureate pre-med program — are even higher.

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

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