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Internal dispute at MSU over Neuroscience Department goes public

BOZEMAN – An internal dispute over the future of a Montana State University science department has gone public, with faculty saying an administration plan will undercut the department’s research mission.

MSU administrators told the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience late last year that it has two years to increase students in its doctoral program, or face the graduate program’s elimination.

“They have made promises about how many doctoral students they would have (per) year, and they haven’t met them for over a decade,” said Tracy Ellig, MSU’s vice president of university communications.

MSU Vice President of University Communications Tracy Ellig

But the head of the department told MTN News Friday that the administration also proposed folding the department into a new School of Human Biology, to emphasize undergraduate instruction for pre-medicine students.

Roger Bradley said the reorganization was a “top-down approach” that “came out of the blue,” without any clear rationale for the change.

Thom Hughes, a professor of cell biology and neuroscience in the department, also said research in the graduate program attracts grant money and talented faculty – without which, the program will dwindle.

“Any competitive neuroscience department in the country has a graduate program,” he said.

The program has 10 faculty and about 300 students, but only five current graduate students.

Both sides in the dispute say they hope to meet and find the best path forward for the department.

They also agree that current students in the program won’t be affected and will be able to finish their degrees.

However, it was concern from students that helped push the dispute into the public sphere, after word leaked out about possible changes and students began asking whether the department would be dissolved, MSU officials said.

Last week, MSU Provost Robert Mokwa sent a campus-wide email to faculty and staff, outlining the discussion over the department’s future. He encouraged faculty to share the information with students and said Bradley had outlined a plan to “enhance” the department by creating a new school or college of Biomedical Sciences.

Bradley, however, told MTN News that his proposal was made to counter the initial plan from the administration to fold the department into a new school.

“My whole problem was that there was this mandated, top-down changes to biomedicine that was not transparent,” he said. “And when we started to complain, they shifted the blame to the department.”

Ellig said the administration’s proposal focused on the shortcomings in the graduate program, which was launched 15 years ago with the promise it would have 15-to-20 students a year. Instead, it’s averaged 3.8 students a year, he said.

But he also said the department has been coming up short in other areas, such as teaching load, scholarly work and, until lately, grant funding.

“It’s under-performing compared to basically all of its peers across the campus,” he said. “We’re just asking them to come up and pull their weight and do what we’re asking faculty across the university to do.”

Hughes told MTN News Friday that a 2015 external review of the program said more faculty are needed to build the graduate program – and that the administration hasn’t taken that step.

He also said the administration has resisted talking to department personnel about its future.

“If they really felt we were a problem and our graduate program was a problem, don’t you think they should have met with us a few times to discuss it?” he said. “A lot of problems could have been solved with a little bit of communication.”

Mike Dennison

Mike Dennison

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