Students and faculty turned out in force before the Montana Board of Regents to lodge passionate protests against Montana State University’s decision to merge the department of cell biology and neuroscience, but MSU stood by its decision.

Student Colin King presented petitions to the regents with more than 500 signatures and objected to the decision “dissolving” the cell biology and neuroscience (CBN) department by merging it into the larger microbiology and immunology department.

Twelve student and faculty members spoke for a full hour to the regents during the public comment portion of Wednesday’s regents meeting in Great Falls.

King and other students said their CBN professors are passionate teachers, scientists and excellent mentors to nearly 300 student majors — and aren’t underperforming as portrayed by MSU administrators. By publicly disgracing the department, he said, “Our degrees have been disgraced as well.”

Neither the regents nor MSU President Waded Cruzado gave any response.

Provost Bob Mokwa, who announced the merger last week, issued a statement Thursday saying that MSU is “committed to strengthening our cell biology and neuroscience program” within the department of microbiology. He avoided repeating the administration’s criticisms of CBN and stressed the positive.

“It is time to turn the page and work together to build a better and stronger program,” Mokwa said. He repeated assurances that CBN’s academic courses and research opportunities for undergraduates will continue.

“It is a quality program,” Mokwa said, and the undergraduate program “remains intact.”

Anne Parker, an MSU student senator, told the regents that news of her department being dissolved came “out of the blue.” Thousands of hours of hard work by students was devalued and the faculty vilified, she said, and asked the administration to restore CBN’s reputation.

Luke Channer, a CBN senior, said it is a “grueling” degree but gives students a better chance of getting into medical school. Channer said Cruzado had publicly dismissed students’ petitions as not representing all students, yet 70% of CBN students had signed.

“Students have been cast aside, ignored, left in the dark,” Channer said. “The administration has set up the department to fail.”

Roger Bradley, an associate professor who was fired as department head, defended CBN, saying it had won $10 million in federal research grants and brought in twice as much money as it cost MSU. CBN students are accepted into medical and dental schools at rates 20 percent higher than national averages, he said.

Seven out of 10 CBN faculty members had received merit raises, outstanding teaching awards or tenure in the past two years, yet “we were publicly trashed in the press as underperforming,” Bradley said, his voice breaking at times.

Steve Stowers, a CBN associate professor, said an outside review found a few years ago that the department needed to hire four more faculty members, but MSU instead neglected the department. Now it would be “career suicide” for research scientists to stay under these conditions, he said, and many good students are likely to choose other colleges.

“Many of the best and brightest of the next generation will leave Montana and never go back,” Stowers said.

Frances Lefcort, a CBN professor working on a $2.9 million National Institutes of Health brain research grant, said she resigned her faculty job last week because of MSU “killing” the department. Destroying CBN will lose money for MSU, she said, and sends a message that Montana students don’t deserve a cutting-edge education available by doing brain research. The number of faculty members has dropped almost in half and there aren’t enough left to support nearly 300 majors, she said.

Clay Christian, commissioner of higher education, didn’t address the CBN speakers, but earlier in the day said that the regents had all received email that was “heartfelt” and “passionate.” Christian said the regents over many years have ordered campuses to set “program priorities” – a phrase that often means eliminating weaker programs. It creates anxiety, Christian said, but the University System must “live within our means.”

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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