University System must support higher education, scholarship

2013-02-06T08:15:00Z University System must support higher education, scholarshipBy DOUGLAS COFFIN and DAVID ‘DOC’ MOORE

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.

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(2) Comments

  1. TwiceGriz
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    TwiceGriz - February 06, 2013 8:08 pm
    Well said Author/Representatives and "Kopper." This novel "embedding" of two year students at the four year campus appears to be "watering down" the missions of both the University and the Missoula College making both institutions weaker for it. Perhaps the 1995 move to bring the colleges in Montana into the University System should have been limited to Administration and Registration where there are cost benefits instead of being expanded to include the meshing of students, campuses, professors and coursework. It is not too late to ensure that the college and university missions and identities remain as they have always been. If it's not broken, don't try to "fix" it.
  2. Kopper
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    Kopper - February 06, 2013 9:58 am
    This is an excellent piece. The Montana University System’s plan to “embed” the two-year Missoula College within the four-year University of Montana is an experiment. A presentation given at the January, 2013 Montana Board of Regents meeting stated, Missoula College “is uniquely situated as a two-year entity within a Carnegie/Research institution, a model that is rare through the nation.” Rare? Really? Why would the Montana University System experiment with a “rare model” when the two-year community college formula has been so successful, educating millions of students across this nation for nearly one hundred years.

    Embedding Missoula College means requiring its two-year students to attend classes on the four-year University of Montana campus and compete with traditional four-year students. Two-year students and four-year students have different learning skills and require a different support mechanism. What the Montana University System is trying to do is fit a square peg in a round hole.

    Missoula College students need their own campus with their own classes and their own support system. The Industrial Arts programs at Missoula College will remain on the West Campus near Fort Missoula. There is 37 acres of bare fields adjoining the existing 13-acre campus. This is where the new Missoula College should be built. It will be better for students, better for faculty, better for both schools and better for Missoula.

    Building Missoula College on the South Campus will create three separate campuses for Missoula College students. That does not make sense. Building Missoula College on the West Campus will still create the jobs that Governor Bullock talks about and it makes a lot more sense. If some Missoula College students still want to take classes at UM, they can, but no one will be forcing them to do so.
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