Fight for Neuroscience at Montana State

Professors on campus say the university plans to turn a research-rich department into a more general biology-focused premed feeder school.

May 8, 2019

Usually when cash-strapped public institutions target programs for cuts, they aim for the humanities.

Not so at Montana State University, at least not this time: the institution may effectively nix its neuroscience program, professors say, and form a less research-oriented school of biology.

The university has cited the department's low numbers of graduate students and research funding, saying that it needs to improve. But professors say that assessment is dead wrong and that they can’t understand why their program is so undervalued. Neuroscience is considered a hot field, and many universities are adding or expanding their programs.

“I dearly wish I knew why we’re being targeted,” Thom Hughes, professor of biophysics, said Tuesday. “If the administration had come and talked with us, laid out the problems, we could have worked together to find solutions.”

Instead, the program’s fate remains a mystery, to students as well as professors.

Tracy Ellig, university spokesperson, said via email that as Montana’s land-grant university, Montana State "provides research, education and outreach opportunities for our students." The university has tried "and will continue to try to work with the faculty to strengthen the academic and research profile of our programs in cell biology and neuroscience." 

In response to a recent student petition to save the program and the larger cell biology and neuroscience department, President Waded Cruzado wrote to students that they should have “peace of mind that you will be able to complete your chosen course of study.”

Montana State “will remain a leader in teaching and research in the biomedical sciences" and "future students will have the same opportunities you did,” she added. “You can have confidence that the courses and the quality experiences you have come to expect will remain intact.”

That’s a more positive take on the program than the university has expressed previously -- even though it’s noncommittal to the program's future status. Earlier this year, Ellig responded to an op-ed by the department’s then head in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle saying that the program was failing internally.

Roger Bradley, the former department chair, wrote in his January opinion piece that the university planned to fold the department into a more generally focused biology unit aimed at graduating premed students.

Ellig said in a public letter quoted in the Bozeman newspaper that the department had managed to attract only about four Ph.D. candidates annually since launching its doctoral program in 2004, and that a master’s program had been put on hold.

Professors in the department say that Bradley lost his chairship over his public dissension and that the university installed an administrator who is a Roman history scholar in his place.

The department of cell biology and neuroscience currently has some 300 majors -- hardly a failing program by that metric. Of those who apply to medical school, 62 percent are accepted, Bradley wrote. Seventy-one percent are accepted to dental school. Both figures are higher than national averages.

Professors in the department have pointed out that half of their majors are from out of state, meaning that they pay three times more tuition than in-state students and therefore benefit the university. And while their overall Ph.D. student figures are low, they say, they are on target for the national student-faculty average ratio, of about 0.9.

To that point, professors in the department say they’re understaffed. They number about 12. An outside review -- while critical of the department’s graduate program -- recommended hiring new professors to teach the expanding undergraduate population.

Regarding funding, Bradley in his column said that the department’s seven top researchers have brought in $10 million in funding, plus another $4 million in overhead. Many undergraduates assist in this work, he said. As recently as November, the university published a news story about neuroscience professors earning a $2.9 million grant to study neurodegeneration.

“The truth is that the administration came to us and told us in no uncertain terms that [the department of cell biology and neuroscience] would be dissolved into a school, a school with no basic-science research component and essentially organized exclusively for the purpose of attracting and teaching premedical undergraduates,” Bradley wrote. “Why disrupt what is clearly an effective training program to develop an incomplete and poorly conceived new school?”

Ellig wrote that the university “has been asking for three years for the department to improve, just as it has been asking every other academic and nonacademic department to improve. The department is underperforming in terms of graduate students; its faculty have teaching loads that are lighter than their peers across campus … the department’s research grant activity has been, until recently, stagnant and its scholarly publication has been low.”

Asked why Montana State needs a neuroscience program, Hughes said that the field is one of the most interdisciplinary within biology at the moment.

“It incorporates engineering and physics to create whole new technologies,” he said, citing an initiative to study the brain that funds his research group. Such new technologies are soon put to use “by super-clever neuroscientists to unravel how the brain really works,” Hughes added.

“Our students learn how to integrate chemistry, physics, physiology, pharmacology, writing and analysis skills in ways that help them appreciate all of the different ways of thinking about the brain.”

Hughes said one could argue that Montana State should be focused on delivering affordable, “good enough” education and “not using valuable resources to build a program for students who could go out of state and attend elite schools to learn neuroscience,” Hughes said. He noted that the university president has frequently touted a new hospitality certificate program.

Yet, “if that’s what is going on here,” he said, “it would certainly be nice to hear it.”

Frances Lefcort, professor of neuroscience, noted Tuesday that Montana State is proud of its public land-grant heritage. Yet “shutting down a neuroscience program runs absolutely counter to the spirit and ethos of the Morrill Act” that granted it that status, she said.

Faculty members, meanwhile, are “trying hard to honor it by providing our students with state-of-the-art research opportunities” in federally funded neuroscience research labs.

What about students? Citing a recent student movement to protect the program and the related petition, Hughes said he thought that those involved were “essentially saying they don’t want to be food servers with hospitality certificates. They want to be doctors and scientists.”

“Unfortunately,” he added, “no one seems to be listening to them.”


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