Montana Hall, MSU Wild

Montana Hall at Montana State University is framed by branch of pink flowers on May 24, 2018.

The embattled cell biology and neuroscience department at Montana State University has been placed under the wing of the larger microbiology department so it can “thrive and grow,” Provost Bob Mokwa announced Wednesday.

In a seven-page email to all MSU faculty members, Mokwa stated that to give cell biology and neuroscience “a stronger foundation,” he is transferring its administration and management to “one of the university’s largest and most successful research and teaching departments.”

The cell biology and neuroscience department is now part of the department of microbiology and immunology. It is headed by Mark Jutila, a regents’ professor and one of the university’s top scientific researchers.

Faculty in both departments will work together to develop ways to bring stability to undergraduate education and revitalize graduate education and research, the provost wrote.

“This department is going to be a powerhouse in terms of research potential and the interest students will have in educational programs,” Mokwa said in an interview.

Mokwa, MSU’s No. 2 administrator, said for nearly 300 cell biology and neuroscience undergraduate students, no changes are planned in the curriculum, classes they take or majors offered.

For the eight tenured and tenure-track faculty members, he said, “no one is going to lose their job in the reorganization.”

For the department’s scientists, he said, this change should bring benefits in pursuing research grants and attracting more graduate students.

“If anything there will be greater opportunities because the faculty will be more competitive in pursuing large grants, as a result of being in a larger program with more colleagues to collaborate with,” Mokwa said.

Microbiology has 19 tenured and tenure-track faculty members, nine research scientists, three instructors and roughly 400 undergraduates, Mokwa said. It is one of MSU’s top departments in research spending and publications. The provost called it “a fantastic department doing great things.”

News of the change was delivered to cell biology and neuroscience faculty Wednesday morning by David Cherry, an associate dean and history scholar who was named acting department head, replacing Roger Bradley. That happened in January, days after Bradley wrote a newspaper column criticizing MSU’s proposal to change the department into a school of human biology, which faculty feared would replace research scientists with adjunct instructors.

Mokwa’s reorganization doesn’t call for creating such a school.

In May, three undergraduate students gathered more than 500 petition signatures seeking to save the department. Students also said they feared the furor would make it harder for many of them who want to get into medical school. Mokwa said the reorganization should give bright students more opportunities to pursue health careers.

“Honestly, the solution isn’t that bad,” Thom Hughes, a cell biology and neuroscience professor, said in an email. He called Jutila “a very experienced department head (who) might be able to smooth this over.”

However, Hughes criticized Mokwa for not meeting with the faculty in person, and for what he called misleading and deeply hurtful statements about the department’s alleged shortcomings.

Frances Lefcort, a cell biology and neuroscience research scientist, charged Mokwa’s email was full of lies and misstatements.

Mokwa said he detailed the department’s shortcomings in his email to make it clear to the campus community that his decision wasn’t made capriciously but based on the merits.

He alleged:

  • Administrators asked the department many times to address shortcomings in numbers of graduate students, research, scientific publications and teaching loads. Yet all efforts were met with “resistance.”
  • Faculty members used classroom time to lobby students.
  • Since 2004, the program has graduated only nine Ph.D.s and four master’s students. Since 2013, undergraduate degrees decreased 31%.
  • Some faculty members teach only one course a year, or supervise fewer than two grad students. Other MSU students and faculty essentially “subsidize” the department.
  • Research spending by faculty is less than half the average for faculty in microbiology and immunology or chemistry and biochemistry. Publications are less than half the national average.

Mokwa said he doesn’t see cell biology and neuroscience losing anything in the reorganization.

“If anything the benefits coming to CBN far outweigh anything that could be detrimental,” he said. “This is about the future, having a large, vibrant CNB program.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

Gail Schontzler covers schools and Montana State University for the Chronicle.

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