The University of Montana is truly at a crossroads. At question is the university’s mission, where we must reconcile two-year education plans with the four-year, graduate and research/scholarship programs. At risk are faculty-student scientific research and creative arts projects that are currently an integral part of the university’s mission, but face a questionable future. Recent budget cuts to both the research and academic programs, together with the confusion over the plans for the new Missoula College, have generated serious concerns both on campus and in the community.
Scientific research and creative arts are the equivalent of continuing education for our faculty. They are absolutely necessary to keep faculty at the leading edge and provide the real quality in higher education. However, the combination of federal and institutional budget cuts have put graduate programs in jeopardy and research faculty jobs at risk. All the uncertainty has led some of our best scientists to look for jobs elsewhere.
Our academic departments have suffered continuous budget cuts. The last “tuition freeze” actually resulted in UM students being pounded with a 15 percent tuition increase that most of them will have to pay with student loans. Some departments have been informed that we can no longer afford paper for handouts to students.
The Board of Regents has been intensely focused on two-year education, this is a good thing. Quality, comprehensive two-year education is a virtue, and an absolute necessity for a thriving 21st century economy. However, there are nagging academic questions surrounding the two-year plan. We hear complaints that the university is being transformed into a “junior college,” based on the perception that the two-year education plan is being funded with the budget cuts and tuition increases at UM. We hope that’s not true.
Two-year education should be for students seeking the unique training and skills therein. It should not be a device for cost cutting on the main campus or stocked by students who really want to attend UM, but can’t get the classes they need. Overall, as a true university, UM must offer quality education at all levels.
To rebuild our research and graduate programs, the UM administration and the state government must act quickly. We can’t wait another two years. Research and Development is at the economic forefront in the 21st century, but there is little recognition of that in Helena this spring. Neither the governor’s budget nor the legislature’s House Bill 2 contain the necessary R&D investments. The Montana University System brings in almost $175 million in reach funding annually, yet the state only contributes about $5 million. This needs to change, the state must do its share and invest in the future. Perhaps if we invest more, we will gain more.
First, the UM administration, the governor and the legislature need to devise a comprehensive 21st century R&D plan and fund it this session. We need more funds for small-business technology transfer grants and more small research grants for our faculty scientists so they can compete for larger federal grants and include more students in their projects.
Second, we need a Scientific Advisory Board to the Board of Regents that provides both expertise and coordination between the MUS and other state agencies, private institutes and private college campuses.
Third, Montana’s Democratic Sens. Max Baucus, Jon Tester and Republican Congressman Steve Daines need to unite behind a plan that brings the correct level and proper types of federal research funding for success.
Fourth, the university and the public opposition should quickly reconcile their differences over the new Missoula College plans. The new building is an absolute necessity, but those plans need to be modest and based on accurate enrollment projections. There is more to it than just the building or the golf course. It is about the fundamental relationship between a public university and the community.
At this crossroads, the MUS needs to support higher education and scholarship at all levels. We hope that UM President Royce Engstrom’s new team will rebuild our research and scholarly programs at UM, but they must act quickly and decisively. We will likely hear the familiar refrain “we can’t afford it” from Helena, but in reality, we cannot afford to do nothing.
Rep. Douglas Coffin, D-Missoula, represents House District 93 and Rep. David “Doc” Moore, R-Missoula, represents House District 91 in the Montana Legislature.