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Education and health are basic human rights. Imagine hospitals closing three days a week because of finances. Well, it is what will happen at the University of Montana if the proposition to close from Saturday to Monday passes.

This idea is unsound.

Education teaches us how "to think more deeply and... act more honorably" (Martin Luther King). A university is one of the rare institutions equipped to fill empty minds, fix maimed spirits, soothe wounded hearts, or rekindle hope and courage. It fights bad reasoning. It gives people a critical mind and priceless skills useful in a pitiless job market.

Academia is the only institution to help the poor, disenfranchised, and the working class to reach a more independent and satisfying financial status. Only higher ed has the credibility to dream a future liberated from our worst fears and limitations, to mend our social and environmental mistakes and project our dreams onto the world. Education is power and higher consciousness.

To limit education access in our times of financial/social/economical duress is a mistake against America's future.

For most, education is the only hope to weather the crisis. Our society will develop new domains of expertise, new jobs and skills, only by becoming more educated, more knowledgeable, more cognizant of all sciences and techniques, of the world's history and cultures, by developing a more critical mind that will establish a new inter-connectivity between events, things and people.

Instead of trying to stay competitive in car or appliance manufacturing (let the developing nations make them!), or bailing out fraudulent banks, the government and states should invest immensely not only in green energy, mass-transit, infrastructure, etc., but also in space, i.e., education. The '60s Apollo program catapulted American economy and technology to the top. A genuine "trickle down" economy followed.

Today's crisis offers a challenge to think anew and work more efficiently. States and the government should expand higher ed. Private enterprises can help if they can overcome their short-sightedness and self-interest. Instead of downsizing, cutting and restricting, the university should reorganize by increasing its offerings and admitting a maximum of students. Tuition should not be raised and prisoners allowed to enroll.

The university should become a powerhouse, open all the time, with two shifts of teachers and staff.

If the public is "tax shy," and the Legislature without vision or money, the university should be creative enough for both.

UM should police itself and cut "pork" by 1) Re-assigning to teaching supernumerary administrators. A faculty/staff/student council could replace them. Why should universities imitate the corporate, hierarchical model? b) Cutting extravagant programs imposed by administrators without faculty input, or sinecures created for spouses, politicos, retired administrators or local pundits.

We all bitterly remember the squandering of NASA funds and the athletic department financial debacle ("situations" that, to its credit, the Missoulian reported to the taxpayer). But the Augean stables were cleaned. As a quick fix for the present lack of higher ed state funds, UM should actively recruit foreign students. Imagine the dent 200 Arab Gulf students would make in the university deficit! UM could lower energy costs by negotiating with NorthWestern Energy, which thanks to deregulation has accumulated huge dollar amounts. For PR reasons and tax credit, can't NorthWestern Energy show some patriotism and give back a little by helping to enlighten Montanans?

Universities' more open admission will affect academic standards. To help preserve them, the Legislature could hire two faculty teams on six-month contracts, each with salaries negotiated by all: states, unions, faculty associations and student representatives. The sacrosanct "faculty tenure" could even be reinvented.

But governmental intervention is not enough. We also have to help ourselves. To cope with the special needs required by more diverse and challenged students, universities should use voluntarism and devise a system of generalized tutoring; retired faculty and professionals would donate a few hours a week to help "weaker" freshmen or students lagging behind.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer, tear down those walls! Make academia more affordable. Make it more accessible.

This guest column was signed by Michel Valentin, a French professor at the University of Montana; and Clare Kelly, Sarah McClain and Jim Byrnes of Missoula.


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