Havre Daily News
Montana State University-Northern education students this week voiced “deep concerns” about the future of their program.
In an hour-long meeting on Wednesday, education students said changes within the department threaten their ability to complete course requirements and graduate.
Student Education Association co-president Karl Lorett said the education students, who account for about one-quarter of Northern's total enrollment, have “lost faith” in the leaders of the university and the education department, and he called for the state Board of Regents to reorganize the department's administration.
The elimination of a staff position within the department has left a “huge vacuum” in the education program, and some students said they do not believe university staffers have the time and ability to handle critical paperwork and advising duties.
In interviews Thursday, university officials flatly denied a problem exists in the education department and said students' needs have and will be taken care of. They said the students' unrest is the result of rumors and misunderstandings.
“I understand people are concerned,” Chancellor Alex Capdeville said. “The most important thing here is ... the students will be taken care of. That's our No. 1 concern.”
In the Wednesday meeting, attended by about 40 students in Havre and about two dozen more via videoconference from Great Falls and Lewistown, some described incidents involving interim dean Will Rawn that they said point to a need for new leadership in the department.
The SEA has drafted a letter describing its view of the situation at Northern and requesting that the university provide it with various figures, including enrollment and budgetary numbers.
Provost Cheri Jimeno said her office is working to get the students the information they've requested.
Lorett called Rawn “unavailable and unreceptive,” and said the department's leadership is “falling apart.”
He said Rawn's office is often “unmanned, empty and locked.”
He also described one situation in which a student approached Rawn for advice on future course selections and Rawn told her to “just take whatever.”
Rawn adamantly denied the alleged incident took place.
“That did not happen,” he said. “I've been advising students for 20 years. There is not one time when I've told a student to ‘take whatever'”
He said he has not acted improperly, and said students are welcome to come to him and talk about their concerns.
“I'm not in my office every minute,” he said. “I can't be and do my job, but I'm (often) there and my door is open.”
Rawn has led the the colleges of education, nursing, and arts and sciences for two years. A reorganization of the campus, initiated by Capdeville, set the college under the direction of two deans. Faculty members this week said a national search for a permanent dean to take Rawn's position has been repeatedly delayed, while Capdeville and other officials said the school is in the process of conducting that search.
Former education staffer Joanna Kurtz this week said she recently retired from the university after 31 years of service because she thought she had no choice.
She accused Rawn and administrators of creating a hostile work environment, and said she was forced out of her job.
Capdeville and Rawn denied that Kurtz was forced to leave her position, and said she left on her own accord.
“I would categorically ... deny that there has been hostility from my office or from me toward this employee,” Rawn said.
He and Capdeville declined to comment further and said the issue was a personnel matter that could not be discussed because of university policy.
Capdeville said Kurtz's job will not be filled. Her duties will be spread among other staffers. An additional staff person will be hired, but will work with each of the departments under Rawn's office.
Capdeville said Kurtz's former job is not being filled because the university is trying to “gain efficiencies” and save money.
Kurtz said she maintained student files, organized paperwork that dealt with students' practicum and student-teaching placements, handled graduation paperwork and dealt with paperwork related to Northern's accreditation. She said she's worried that the work will not get done, a sentiment echoed by Student Education Association members.
Lorett said other university staffers do not have the training or the time to do Kurtz's former duties.
“These people only have time to put out fires,” Lorett said.
After Wednesday's meeting, student Trista Schaeffer said she quit her work-study job because a faculty member had informed her that Rawn expected her to learn Kurtz's former duties. Schaeffer said she was told she would not be paid until she learned Kurtz's old job.
Rawn said he never made any such request.
Capdeville and Rawn said Northern staffers will be able to handle the work.
Kurtz's husband, Bob, was suspended without pay for two and a half days on Friday. Bob Kurtz said the suspension was the result of his refusal to take on his wife's former duties while continuing with his current job. He is an assistant for graduate programs, where he maintains files and advises graduate students.
A letter sent to Bob Kurtz and signed by Rawn said the suspension was the result of Kurtz's refusal to “keep and maintain undergraduate education student files and records.”
Bob Kurtz in a few weeks will take over as president of the staff union at Northern.
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees field representative Pete Parsons said the union early next week will file a grievance on behalf of Bob Kurtz. He would not comment on the specifics of the grievance, but said it would contain several elements, including information similar to grievances filed this week by Bob Kurtz. Those grievances were pulled back, Parsons said, because they needed to be revised.
“We wanted to modify those and make sure they were a little more complete,” Parsons said.
He will meet with Bob Kurtz and university representatives next week, and declined to comment further on the matter.