Zero Sum Priorities

Montana State professors take stand against a new vocational program -- despite strong administration and industry support -- questioning the kinds of jobs it would produce and the impact on core academic fields.

November 18, 2015

Many professors say that their administrations create and fund new, vocationally oriented programs at the expense of key academic fields, without asking for any faculty input. Not so at Montana State University, where the Faculty Senate recently rejected -- least for now -- a proposed hospitality management program, despite strong administrative and industry support for the new degree.

Hospitality management is simply “not a high priority,” said Gary Brester, a professor of agricultural economics at Montana State and a member of the Faculty Senate who opposed the proposal in 16-to-12 vote. “If one funds the lines for this program which doesn’t even exist, then we have taken resources away from funding the needs we currently have in high-demand, high-quality programs that represent [our] focus.”

Brester and other opposed senators say tenure-track faculty lines at Montana State have stagnated in recent years, even as enrollment has grown by more than 30 percent. And the biggest faculty need areas are those that mirror the university’s land-grant mission, they say: engineering, agriculture, math and statistics, along with the humanities and social sciences.

“We struggle to maintain strong programs when student numbers increase and positions and operating support are flat,” Brester said. And if the state of Montana does require more hospitality graduates, “I don’t think we have any trouble attracting graduates from other parts of the country,” he added.

The university meanwhile, maintains that the program is a worthwhile one. It also disagrees with the faculty's characterization of funding for instruction for core programs.

According to an early program proposal submitted by Alison Harmon, interim dean of the College of Education, Health and Human Development, hospitality management would have been an interdisciplinary degree based on existing course work in food and nutrition sciences, agriculture, and business, as well as new courses bridging tourism, management and other areas.

The program would be unique in the “state and region and has the potential to stimulate the industry and professionalize the future workforce for Montana’s tourism economy,” Harmon wrote. “Currently, there are no programs in hospitality offered at four-year-degree institutions in Montana, yet tourism is one of Montana’s leading industries, and according to interviews with stakeholders, hospitality management jobs are difficult for employers to fill.” And in an independent analysis, Harmon wrote, hotel, restaurant and tourism management job postings jumped 14 percent from 2010-13, and 44 percent in the Northwest in particular.

Harmon's idea was a pared-down version of an earlier proposal that would have been housed in an entirely new college, which the Faculty Senate rejected in April. But it still would have required several tenure-track faculty lines and additional facilities. Estimated to draw 100 students within five years, proponents said it would break even in two.

Beyond, say, medical schools, new academic programs rarely elicit the kind of public interest that the hospitality degree and a related culinary arts program proposal at nearby two-year Gallatin College, which is part of Montana State, did. Bozeman-area businesspeople and those in the tourism industry in particular called on faculty members to support the field. The weeks surrounding the Faculty Senate’s vote saw a flurry of letters and op-eds in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, for example.

“Having a degree program like this at a ‘research-oriented university’ would not be new, and should certainly not detract from the prestige that MSU enjoys,” David Cole, a local resident, wrote. “Someone has to support and cater to the four million annual tourists, and whoever does needs training and the proper skills. Though some might consider the proposed degree program to only be for glorified burger flippers, the tourism and hospitality industry of the state would probably disagree.”

A mid-October Faculty Senate meeting at which the proposal was discussed also was attended by Bozeman Mayor Jeff Krauss and other local businesspeople. “The knock on our industry is we don’t pay well,” Mike Hope, president of the Montana Tavern Association, said, according to the Daily Chronicle. “I take offense if you think we’re a low-paid, low-education industry.”

Some faculty members have expressed concern about building a program around an area of the economy with many relatively low-paying jobs. Gregory Gilpin, an associate professor of labor economics who is not a member of the Faculty Senate but who publicly opposed the program -- including in an influential briefing to senators -- said the annual pay for accommodations and food service managers in Montana is $34,121, comparable to preschool and child care center directors, who are notoriously underpaid. Head chefs and cooks, meanwhile, make $33,299, he said. Both are substantially lower than the average annual wage for a Montana worker, irrespective of education and industry.

Gilpin said he also took issue with Harmon’s and others’ claims that tourism was Montana’s second-largest industry, saying that tourism is more a label for parts of the economy than an industry in itself. Citing figures from the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, Gilpin said the leisure activities industry, including hospitality and culinary arts, represents 5 percent of total earnings in Montana and is the 10th-largest industry.

Countering program proponents’ claims that hospitality degrees would make graduates more desirable on the job market, Gilpin said just 3 percent of accommodations jobs are supervisory and require formal schooling. So while faculty shortages factored into the senate’s vote, he said, “the bigger concerns are poor employment outlooks and program redundancy within and between public higher education institutions in Montana.”

While it’s true that no four-year hospitality program exists in Montana, there’s concern on other campuses that a new program would duplicate existing hospitality offerings. In a September memo to Montana State Provost Martha Potvin, Perry Brown, provost of the University of Montana, expressed support for the proposed program but also concern about too much overlap with existing programs elsewhere in the state.

“We believe that there is room for more than one program in this broad area if we clearly identify niches that take advantage of the strengths of our campuses and that recognize particular needs of the broad hospitality industry of Montana,” he wrote. (The memo also quotes an unnamed faculty member consultant as saying, “This is not really a degree in hospitality management in the conventional sense and appears to me as very misleading to potential students.”)

Neither Harmon nor Potvin immediately responded to a request for comment. The Daily Chronicle reported that both expressed their disappointment at the recent vote, with Potvin saying she didn’t think there was enough faculty support for the program to bring it to the Montana University System Board of Regents for approval.

The culinary arts program at Gallatin College, which presumably would have been a feeder to the Montana State degree, also was voted down at the same meeting.

Gilpin said the faculty isn’t opposed to adding programs generally, citing a new bachelor of science degree in financial engineering and a new master of science degree in nursing as proof. Both those programs have “tremendous earnings potential” and are in the top five fastest growing employment sectors of the Montana and U.S. economy, in contrast to the failed proposals, he said.

The Faculty Senate’s vote was a “careful and thoughtful assessment” of the value of those programs, Gilpin added. “These are multimillion-dollar proposals with substantial future costs. Taking such a high-risk venture is reckless and not in students’ best interest.”

Brester said that didn’t mean the proposal wouldn’t come up again in some other iteration -- perhaps sooner than he thinks.

Tracy Ellig, a spokesman for Montana State, said the university plans to ask the senate to reconsider its vote, since 16 to 12 is a narrow enough margin to warrant another conversation, in its view.

“Tourism has become a significant part of the state’s economy and is projected to become even larger in coming years and decades,” Ellig said via email. “Our analysis -- and ample testimony from the industry -- has shown a need for graduates in hospitality management to meet this growth. [Montana State] is a land-grant university with a mission to serve the needs of the state and we believe that’s what we are doing with this program.”

Ellig also said the university disagrees with the idea that enrollment has outpaced faculty hiring. The university has devoted 40 percent more funds to instruction since 2009, he said, to the current level of about $91 million. The current student-faculty ratio is 19 to one, the same as last fall.

Since 2009, tenurable faculty funding has increased 5 percent, while nontenurable faculty funded by all sources has grown by 22 percent, Ellig said, and it's “incorrect to assume that every 1 percent growth in enrollment necessitates a 1 percent growth in faculty. Such a model ignores faculty-to-student ratios and the very important indicators of retention and graduation,” which have improved since 2009.


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