Bob McCoy

There has been much news in the past several months about how the University of Montana is engaging with the private sector to educate students and to provide local high-tech businesses with skilled workers. That has brought greatly needed financial support to UM.

Last September, the university announced its Cyber Innovation Laboratory in association with various area high-tech companies. To date, several local high-tech firms have contributed some $40,000 toward funding the lab. At the same time, UM received a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop the high-speed data network necessary to support becoming a big-data hub.

One local high-tech company donated proprietary software valued at $250,000. This is on top of the proprietary software previously contributed by a large computer manufacturer now in the big-data analytics arena.

No one should be surprised that the private sector is willing to donate money and gifts-in-kind. Of course they will, for at the very least, those windfalls for UM are huge tax write-offs for the companies. It makes perfect business sense, for in addition to tax breaks, the real payoff is that employers are supplied with skilled employees looking for jobs. Businesses win and students win.

Further, last November, the Blackstone Charitable Foundation donated $1 million toward establishing a university program that assists local entrepreneurs in developing business models along with other startup challenges. What we are seeing with regard to the university and the high-tech private sector is known as “performance funding,” money flowing into academic fields that either create new jobs or provide qualified employees for them.

All of this, unquestionably, is good news for Missoula. The university also seems to win since it has some of the latest high-tech hardware and software with which to attract students. But does the university really win in the long run? That depends.

I always thought the true mission, explicitly stated or not, of a flagship university – after fielding a football team, of course – was to prepare students for significant roles in society, similar to those that Plato called Guardians, from his belief that educated philosopher-kings were the only ones qualified to rule and thereby carry forward a proper civilization.

Don’t get me wrong: I earned a good living in the high-tech field, and I will not bite the hand that fed me. However, I do point out a significant speech given last August by Christina Paxson, president of Brown University, in which she stated, “We need humanists to help us understand and respond to the social and ethical dimensions of technological change.”

She went on to say that the focus of higher education ought not be on the skills needed immediately after graduation, since those change over time anyway. Rather, education must advance the “intellectual, creative, and social capacity of human beings.” Technology does not – cannot – do that, and in fact often does the opposite. Do you doubt that? Consider that it is the advances in technology that has enabled our government to monitor our conversations, track our movements and otherwise routinely invade our personal spaces with only disingenuous “Pardon us – just looking for bad guys” excuses.

Good leaders most often have backgrounds in the humanities or the liberal arts, somewhat intertwined branches of learning, that prepared them for dealing with human issues. That does not mean that all humanities or liberal arts majors make good leaders. It does mean that without some sort of background in those fields, it is extremely difficult to deal with the challenges of our times in a humanitarian way.

Consequently, UM ought to endow its humanities and liberal arts programs with the same level of resources that it has devoted to its high tech endeavors. To extend Paxson’s words, we need business leaders who are familiar with Charles Dickens and Herman Melville, we need financiers who have read Shakespeare and Theodore Dreiser, and we surely need politicians who have digested Plato and John Locke – just to start.

Such leaders will have a better grasp of the human condition, and that cannot but improve how they deal with the mechanics of whatever enterprises they head. Oh, by the way, UM’s dear leader was a chemistry major.

Bob McCoy writes on issues of local interest. His column appears in the Missoulian every other Friday.

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