On a typical day, you’d be more likely to find University of Montana students going to bed at 4:30 in the morning after a long night of studying or partying than waking up. Such was not the case on Wednesday, Feb. 5, when a group of UM students squeezed into two minivans to make an early morning trip to Helena in the midst of a harsh blizzard.
The occasion that roused these students long before the sun was the 8 a.m. meeting of the Montana Legislature’s Education Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee. The eyes of the students huddled inside the minivans revealed exhaustion, but as the sun came out, the eyes became focused, all aware that the fate of their university hung in the balance.
Inside Helena’s Capitol building, the students from Missoula were greeted by counterparts from the University’s other branches: Montana Tech, Montana Western and the Helena College of Technology. The students quickly took seats in the chambers below soft fluorescent lights, a sea of microphones and cords and a legislative subcommittee that entered the room gradually, the way someone might right before announcing that your grandfather has died. No one in the room appeared eager to talk about funding cuts to the system, but that was the order of the day. UM President George Dennison began the discussion, summing up the problem succinctly.
“Despite the best efforts of the University, the Legislature and the executive branch, general fund support has not kept pace with inflation…In 2004, we will receive less state funding than we did in 1992, even as the cost of educating a student has increased, and must increase, in line with inflation.”
Dennison’s statements are based on the assumption that the Legislature will vote, as expected, to cap spending on Montana’s university system at year 2000 levels. The “size of the problem” at the Missoula campus alone, Dennison said, would be a $14.2 million shortfall. To add perspective to that number, Dennison explained that such a regressive budget would require cutting 136 positions at the Missoula campus, or 29 percent of all current programs. Alternately, it would require a drastic hike in tuition costs or some combination of the three options.
John Swan, President of UM-Missoula’s Associated Students of UM, urged the committee not to allow such cuts or tuition increases to become necessary.
“Growing up in Rocky Boy, I had a tribal elder tell me, ‘Before colonization, Indian communities were dependent upon the buffalo. The buffalo provided food, housing, tools, medicine—provided, basically, a way of life and survival. After contact, we lost the buffalo. We needed to find something new. Education became our buffalo.’”
Drawing on the buffalo analogy, Steve Hoyle, CEO and dean of the Helena College of Technology, explained what 2000 spending levels would do to his school.
“We would have to eliminate two administrative and support positions, but compared to the national average with the size of the institution that we have, we are already short 12 support personnel to do the national average work to help us build those buffalo herds,” said Hoyle.
“You can’t shoot the buffalo and grow your herd at the same time,” he added.
Dan Berube serves as the chairman for the local executive board of Montana Tech in Butte, and is the former chairman of Montana Power. Berube called reduced state expenditures for higher education “shortsighted.”
“Continuing these trends can only produce bad effects such as making higher education more elitist,” Berube said.
While Berube and other administrators discussed the implications of the budget cuts from a financial and institutional standpoint, the UM students who trekked to Helena in minivans spoke on a more personal level, attempting to give the legislators faces to attach to the figures.
Students, administrators and legislators alike conceded that tuition increases appear all but inevitable. Sarah Cobler, the ASUM student lobbyist and a former liberal studies/environmental studies student at UM, indicated what education meant to her, and how the cuts would effect people like herself.
“I was lucky as a student…I received academic scholarships. But with these scholarships I still worked thirty hours per week. At $6 an hour, if you take out taxes, I’m making about 500 bucks a month. Now I had to pay rent, presumably I bought food…I don’t have a car still to this day and I certainly wasn’t living life in the fast lane. If we make the philosophic choice to not support public higher education, students like myself will be priced out. There’s no doubt about it,” Cobler said.
The long work hours combined with schoolwork described by Cobler trouble Paul Haber, UM professor of political science. Haber testified before the committee that “Carrying a full course load and working long hours is not conducive to a quality education for most people. I see a few particularly…talented people pull it off, however I don’t think we can make good public policy based on…unusual people,” Haber said.
The legislative subcommittee was sympathetic to the plight of the students, but explained that it is caught between a rock and a hard place.
Committee chairman Rep. Don Hedges (R-Antelope) presented the government’s predicament: “We have three choices. We can put the funding of the University on the back of the University through closing programs or raising tuition. We can take money from the Coal Trust savings account, or we can go out and raise property or income taxes…Which would you recommend to us?”
Perhaps the most notable indicator of the quality of UM education under current funding levels came from political science major and ASUM representative Matt Jennings, who creatively responded to Hedges’ question by putting forth an option that Hedges had not discussed.
“I think there are certain sources of revenue that we can look at to help out students like myself and Montana families without raising income taxes, and those are the vice taxes, which, combined with certain [university] budget cuts, I think could get us through the next couple of years until we can hope for better economic times,” Jennings said.