[The Montana Professor 1.1, Winter 1991 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Sound and Fury...
The Report of the Montana Education Commission for the Nineties and Beyond

Eastern Montana College

After months of study and public meetings, the committee appointed by Governor Stephens has made its recommendations. The committee's solution to the ills of the Montana University System is to appoint six more committees, to wit: (1) The Montana Assessment Project, for which the legislature is supposed to appropriate funds and which will work for a decade, with ready progress reports by the Commissioner to the Regents and the Legislature; (2) a committee on transfer of credits to identify problems and propose solutions; (3) a committee to plan and develop telecommunications, with regional advisory groups throughout the state; (4) a Governor's long-range planning council to anticipate and plan for the state's future; (5) the Higher Education Planning and Budget Committee to maintain effective communication between higher education and the legislature; and (6) a joint committee to review prominent trends in teacher education. If we continue to lose population in Montana, we may not have enough citizens to serve on higher education committees!

This Report is preposterous because:

  1. It recommends that "Montanans identify the knowledge and abilities students are expected to possess and develop comprehensive ways of assessing whether those results have been achieved." The commission members are beating a dead horse. Professors spend their lives determining standards, teaching and testing the subject matter, debating the changing needs of core curricula, setting standards in consultation with their colleagues and in professional organizations such as the Modern Language Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Council of teachers of Foreign languages, and dozens more. The professors of the MUS already know what to teach and what to expect--that is not the problem. The commission reveals that it does not know what goes on in the academic professions by recommending that we do what we have done compulsively and painfully for a hundred years--at least since Harvard's fragmentation of the electives and the rise of the Ph.D. in the 1870s. Such a preoccupation has exhausted the energies of faculties for so many years that DeParle and Mundy have called it the "con-job of the higher education" (Washington Monthly, Oct. 1989).

  2. The faith the layman has in the development of telecommunications shows a belief in voodoo education and a naive expectation that the machine will make learning easy and cheap. Anybody who uses the expression "distance learning technologies" ought to be watched carefully for other deviant behavior. The lack of telecommunications is certainly not what is wrong with the MUS.

  3. The committee recommends the creation of a committee on transfer of credits among the units. But a true university system is the only thing that makes such easy transfer possible, and the preservation of an unwieldy, ineffective, and expensive administrative structure makes such a system impossible.

  4. The commission recommends that "enrollment limits be placed on UM and MSU, and on some programs at other institutions, to reserve them for students who are well prepared to meet the requirements of those institutions and programs. The remaining units of the system should continue to operate with full open enrollment policies." Such restriction of enrollment has several results:

    1. It divides the MUS into "real" universities and Mickey Mouse colleges, into schools for the smart and energetic on the one hand and the dumb and lazy on the other, so that such stigma may follow the student throughout his career. Yet, it taxes every citizen to pay for it. As such, it lacks idealism and an understanding of the possibilities of public education, and has unpleasant implications for social justice and social mobility. Moreover, it implies that professors in the Mickey Mouse colleges must water down their subject matter so the dummies can pass, not considering that such a procedure may damage some of the smart ones who opted to go to school in their home town for financial or familial reasons. The idea is identical to the differential diploma concept in high schools and deserves to be forgotten for the same reasons.

    2. Such an attempt to lower enrollment in order to save money and improve instruction does nothing but shift the enrollment around. A professor who maintains high standards has the same effect without the shady social implications. Excellence in Montana higher education will not be achieved by political and administrative tinkering with differential entrance requirements but by supporting an idealistic professoriate and its quality programs before they all take off for another state.

    3. Any lowering of enrollment in the MUS will only exacerbate the competition for students among the units. In the face of such manipulations to lower enrollments, the idea of maintaining any kind of student recruitment and retainment offices is such a contradiction that it leaves even the sympathetic observer nonplussed.

    4. Such limits do nothing to raise the quality and reputation of UM and MSU or to create a true university system. If you really want to raise the prestige of the state's universities, then raise the entrance requirements to those of Stanford and pay the professors comparable salaries. You cannot increase the value of education at MSU by making the putative dummies go to NMC or to a junior college; highly qualified students in Montana will still go to Ivy League universities, or to Washington or Idaho or North Dakota.

    5. Such enrollment restriction is like trying to save higher education in Montana by phasing it out. It is a goofy solution.

    6. You cannot restrict enrollment, anyway. The Legislature knows that you are only threatening them with academic disaster if they do not cough up more money and they are not impressed by blackmail. Such an attempt to manipulate them only reinforces the contempt many legislators already feel for the MUS administration.

    7. If you do succeed in restricting enrollment, then you have put several thousand students in the position of going out of state or not getting an education. You will then have to fund the junior colleges properly at the expense of the universities, or create a group of undereducated people whose job skills prepare them for the most menial and underpaid service jobs. You can't expect IBM or Mitsubishi to bring in industries which require significantly educated employees.

  5. The report recommends that the "Board of Regents prepare and submit a single budget proposal to the Legislature and be made responsible for allocating appropriations to the system." That recommendation means nothing when the system is not a true system, and the recommendation that "the state's units of higher education be managed and funded as a single unified enterprise" is a hollow suggestion since the commission totally ignores any substantive suggestions as to how that should be realized. One cannot imagine the legislature giving any more fiscal responsibility to the regents since they already have constitutional authority they do not dare or know how to exercise. We cannot imagine the legislature funding any extra committees to work for ten years making suggestions when the regents have just increased the salary of a retiring president by $10,000 and when the chairman of the regents has seriously proposed keeping local audits a secret--except in cases of dishonesty. Nobody will allow spending the taxpayers' money in secret or will trust anyone who proposes to do so.

  6. Ten years is too long to wait for five or six committees composed mostly of amateurs and politicians to do something about education. The commission's report is a textbook case in the self-augmentation of bureaucracies. It betrays the naive faith in technology of people who read Alvin Toffler and take him seriously. It shows no understanding of mechanisms of Ellulian technique (Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society) and of the regressive influence it has on society.

  7. The report makes some reasonable recommendations on program duplication but does nothing about the massive administrative duplication.

  8. The most ignorant recommendation is that "greater differentiation in faculty assignments than at present should occur, with some primarily committed to teaching, some emphasizing research, and some involved in public service." Such a preposterous view of the nature of the professional academician ignores the fact that the fascination with the subject matter makes a good teacher and a good researcher, that good researchers and teachers have a concern for social, political, and economic justice, for the preservation of the environment, for the reform of education, for the proper operation of their institutions, and for the care and upkeep of the human spirit. To categorize professors by increasing differentiation in faculty assignments (teaching, research, and public service) would create and reward a class of pseudo-specialists and attract a professor to Montana who would poorly serve the ideals of public education.

  9. The report recommends that the "Regents and the Board of Public Education empanel a joint committee to undertake a review of prominent trends in teacher education and prepare recommendations...." It is time some action was taken on teacher education. Some states have nearly done away with professional education courses and the failure of teacher education is the subject of a recent Newsweek article (1 Oct. 1990). The legislature in Texas has restricted such course offerings to eighteen hours. If the regents and the commissioner are to live up to the competency this report apparently expects of them, why have they not directed the schools of education to reform themselves along lines that recognize the requirements of teacher education rather than political considerations?

The commission's report is a non-report. It fails to recognize political realities in Montana, lacks understanding of the functioning of higher education, has low ambitions for the Montana University System and higher education in general, repeats ancient platitudes, and maintains confidence in an administrative structure which has proven bankrupt.

The most comforting thing about the commission's report is that it is vague and unworkable and that nobody is going to pay any attention to it. It will take its place in oblivion with the 400-page University Funding Study Committee Report made in 1989, with the 215-page report prepared by the commissioner in 1986, with the three-hundred-thousand-dollar Blue Ribbon Commission report in 1974, and with the other reports and studies from 1974, 1973, 1972, 1971, 1970, 1968, 1962, 1960, 1958, 1953, 1945, 1944, and 1942.

This commission once again confirms our conviction that higher education in Montana can expect nothing substantial from its administration or from politicians. Excellence in Montana higher education will come only in the classrooms, laboratories, and libraries from the professional academics who, expecting nothing from their leaders, are motivated by a passion to know, by social responsibility, and by a sense of human solidarity.

[The Montana Professor 1.1, Winter 1991 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Contents | Home