Montana State University’s top administrators profess a commitment to shared governance and transparency, yet professors in the beleaguered cell biology and neuroscience department charge those principles were violated when MSU’s top-down decision on merging their department came “out of the blue.”

Cell biology and neuroscience (CBN) faculty members also dispute the administration’s portrayal of their department as falling short in its teaching and research missions and as uncooperative.

Provost Bob Mokwa announced in a May 15 email to all MSU faculty members that CBN would be merged immediately with the department of microbiology and immunology. It came as a shock to CBN’s faculty.

Those faculty members point to the inclusive and open approach MSU took the last time it merged microbiology with another department, immunology and infectious diseases, which happened six years ago.

Then MSU told the Montana Board of Regents, according to public documents on the November 2013 regents agenda, that a committee of faculty members from the two departments had met weekly all summer to discuss the merger, which led to a document outlining the advantages, and “included feedback from all faculty members from both departments.” Two joint faculty meetings were held, MSU wrote, “providing an opportunity for all to voice their opinions.”

“Thus this is truly a faculty led effort,” MSU reported in 2013. “The outcome was a near unanimous faculty opinion from both departments that a merger should occur.” The 2013 merger proposal went up the ladder from the faculty level to the deans, provost, president and finally to the regents for approval.

But this time, charges James Mazer, an associate professor in CBN, who came to MSU three years ago from Yale Medical School, there was no such faculty involvement before Provost Mokwa announced the merger, and professors were shut out of decisions that affect their teaching, research and livelihoods.

“Bob announced it with no planning and no discussion,” Mazer said. “It’s true mergers happen in many places … but they’re carefully crafted.”

Mokwa responded Tuesday in an email, writing that there is no single or prescribed way to handle a department merger. Back in 2013, the two departments’ faculties “embraced the reorganization” as an opportunity, Mokwa wrote.

Now CBN faculty members have an opportunity to work with microbiology colleagues to “achieve stability and long-term viability” and “revitalized graduate education and research,” the provost wrote.

In his May 15 email announcing the merger decision, Mokwa said the two departments’ faculties could now work how best to carry it out. Mokwa said the merger would give cell biology and neuroscience a “stronger foundation” and allow it to “thrive and grow” by transferring its administration and management to microbiology, one of MSU’s “largest and most successful” departments.

Mazer said he’d met with Mokwa on May 3 before the merger announcement, after CBN students had turned in petitions with more than 500 signatures seeking to save their department.

Mazer claimed the provost “assured me repeatedly there was no plan to touch the major or change the organization of the department, he wanted to replace retiring (CBN) faculty and was committed to making it work. I don’t know what happened in the two weeks between … This just came out of the blue.”

In his May 15 email the provost charged that CBN faculty had been asked many times to address shortcomings in numbers of graduate students, research, scientific publications and teaching loads, yet all efforts were met with “resistance.” Other departments were essentially subsidizing CBN, Mokwa contended.

“We are not asking the faculty of CBN to do anything different than their colleagues at MSU already do,” Mokwa wrote Tuesday.

Mazer countered that the department tried to cooperate and in February he drafted “A Five Year Plan for the Neuroscience Program at Montana State University” to address MSU’s complaints. The document was signed by Roger Bradley, CBN associate professor and former department head; David Cherry, interim department head and associate dean; Nic Rae, dean of the College of Letters & Science; Ron Larsen, vice provost and interim Graduate dean; and by Provost Mokwa himself.

Mokwa responded that the five-year plan was conceptual but lacked detail about how CBN would bring “the department’s workload up to par … in research, publication, undergraduate teaching and graduate students.”

Defending CBN’s performance, Mazer pointed to MSU statistics called key performance indicators. The most recent numbers from 2016 showed CBN had 10 faculty members, who spent $1.3 million on research and taught 297 students majoring in the department.

Microbiology had more faculty, 17, who spent a similar $1.4 million on research and taught 359 student majors in that year.

Responding to Mazer’s allegation that he wouldn’t meet with students, Mokwa wrote that he and President Waded Cruzado had “met with every student who has requested a meeting with us.” That’s how they learned, he wrote, that some faculty were using classroom time to lobby students.

Mazer responded that some students were aware of what was going on and asked for time to confer with other students in the first minutes of classes, but he had left the classroom and did no lobbying.

“Montana State University makes decisions based on merit, achievement and adherence to mission,” Mokwa wrote. “Those principles drive fair and equitable processes. We do not make decisions based on protests, petitions and newspaper articles.”

The dispute between Montana Hall and the department that focuses on the growing field of brain research became public in January when Bradley, then CBN department head, took the unusual step of going public, writing an opinion column in the Chronicle. Bradley charged that MSU wanted to transform the department into a teaching school, a School of Human Biology, that would turn out pre-med students but have professors do more teaching and cut back on the research that gives undergraduates an opportunity for a stronger educational experience.

Bradley also argued in the column that the CBN department was a “successful and vibrant” department, teaching bright students who win prestigious national awards like Rhodes, Truman and Goldwater scholarships and who have well above average, 62% and 71% acceptance rates at medical and dental schools.

Mokwa wrote that he’s never said the CBN undergraduate program is failing. What he has said is that the faculty can “provide that same level of excellence to more students … (and) bring their workload in line with what is expected of the rest of our faculty.”

CBN faculty now point to an item on this week’s Board of Regents agenda and see it as MSU’s latest version of the human biology school — the Institute for Interprofessional Education and Collaborative Practice in Health and Medicine.

MSU’s proposal says the institute would strengthen health care education by stressing collaboration between campuses and disciplines, and would coordinate education of health professionals at hospitals and clinics across the state. MSU President Waded Cruzado and Mokwa signed the proposal last September.

Mazer said he’s concerned whether after the merger MSU would allow hiring new CBN faculty to replace those who are retiring or leaving and won’t be there to teach next fall’s classes.

Mokwa wrote that MSU is already hiring an experienced Ph.D. researcher and instructor to teach those classes, and to suggest classes wouldn’t be taught is “an unfortunate scare tactic.”

Mazer said the CBN faculty wants to sit down with Mark Jutila, microbiology and immunology department head, to talk about what the merger means and “figure out if there is a way to make this work. No one wants to sabotage it.”

“We want to do our mission, both teaching and research,” he said. “We are desperately looking for a way to make it work.”

“Wonderful,” Mokwa wrote. “It’s time to move forward.”

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

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

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