Open letter to Dr. Jeff Baker
Commissioner of Higher Education

Dear Commissioner Baker:

Thomas Jefferson, not only set in motion the opening of the American West, but developed the concept of public higher education. Jefferson understood access to public higher education was in the nation's public interest. John Kennedy's vision of a "new frontier" was not limited to the gathering of some dust and rocks from an orbiting piece of lunar real estate. Kennedy understood the greatest benefit would come from the acquisition and application of the knowledge acquired in such a venture. These and other initiatives signify that the real exploration and development of our frontiers included, in large measure, the frontiers of knowledge. In fact, expanding the frontiers of knowledge has been the great engine of progress in our society. Montana paralleled, maybe even exceeded, the American commitment to exploring and developing the frontiers of knowledge by creating a system of public higher education of exceptional quality, accessibility, and opportunity.

Now you are being called upon to develop a draft "vision statement" for the Montana University System. At the same time, there are voices, both in and out of government, demanding a policy of retreat, retrenchment, contraction, and disengagement on the part of the University System. They insist public higher education make do with fewer public resources. They expect access and opportunity to be reduced and limited. Quality is immaterial to them.

These same people suggest two-year higher education not serve as a point of access and opportunity for those with only a high school diploma. Rather, they promote two-year higher education only as a less costly alternative to many, if not most, of the four-year degree programs offered in this state. While demanding restrictions on access to four-year institutions, they fail to acknowledge the problems created by artificial or elitist allocation strategies necessary in such a process.

That Montana grants a higher proportion of four year degrees than the national norm is seen as some kind of indictment. Critics of the University System demand a retreat to the national average. "If its good enough for North Carolina or California, it ought to be good enough for Montana," they say.

Critics argue too many graduates leave Montana for employment elsewhere, therefore, we shouldn't create so many of them. This ignores the fact that whatever the numbers, some percentage will still leave the state, for reasons mostly dealing with the mobility urge of our national psyche resulting from our national experience. While demanding privatization of our system, these critics ignore the negative message the provincialism evident in their complaints conveys to private sources of support from outside Montana.

These voices argue four-year degrees are simply too expensive given our tax base. Yet this argument ignores the tax base, both income and property, created by the population which holds four-year or graduate degrees. Indeed, if one carefully analyzes Montana Department of Commerce census bureau data, the earnings of Montana residents with a four-year degree represent a tremendous return on investment for this state. Clearly, the $32,000 average annual Income of those residents with four-year degrees far outstrips the $22,000 average annual income of residents with two-year degrees. The ripple and multiplier effects of this difference provide enormous dividends for our economy.

A vision statement for the University System must reject the call for retreat, retrenchment, contraction, and disengagement. This statement ought not be an apology for what Montana's University System is and can be.

This vision statement should not be an instrument of appeasement to critics of the Montana University System.

I believe the "vision" articulated for the Montana University System must be a call to leadership and progress. It must reiterate Montana's commitment to access, opportunity, and quality. It must define the necessity and benefits of exploring and developing the frontiers of knowledge. This vision statement must serve as a rallying point for the expression of pride and accomplishment in what our system has done and must serve as a road map to the future.

Greg Jergeson

State Senator
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