[The Montana Professor 14.2, Spring 2004 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

An Interview with Regent John Mercer

Keith Edgerton

[This interview was conducted Saturday, Feb. 14th, 2004, in Polson, and is presented here largely unedited. TMP is grateful to Regent Mercer for his hospitality and his granting us this interview; we regret that there was no time to permit him to review his responses to our questions. We also wish to thank Pat Amundsen for her transcription of the interview.--Ed.]

John Mercer wants to rehabilitate the public perception of higher education in Montana. How successful he will be remains an open question. Governor Martz appointed Mercer to a seven-year term on the Montana Board of Regents in July of 2001. Since that time Mercer has been both lightning rod and dynamo in his bold, audacious--some might even say, reckless--attempts at reforming Board policies, scrutinizing campus budgets, and in his candid--sometimes even brazen--questioning of university administrators, the Commissioner of Higher Education, or other Board members. Mercer, a lawyer in practice with former Montana Supreme Court justice Jean Turnage in Polson, has brought a take-no-prisoners style to the often somnambulant, bi-monthly Board meetings, a style that served him well during 16 years in the Montana Legislature (1984-2000), including an unprecedented four terms as the Speaker of the GOP-led House. Admire or dislike him--and there is not much middle ground--even the most jaundiced observer must admit that Mercer is bright, politically intuitive, and openly passionate about his views, a combination rarely seen in the cautious, circumspect world of upper echelon higher education governance. I sat down with Mercer recently, a month after his ascendance (by acclamation) to the chairmanship of the Board, for a wide-ranging interview on, among other things, his motivations and his perceptions of the future of higher education in Montana.

After your graduation from UM in 1979 and subsequent return to Montana in 1982 you served in the House of Representatives for eight terms, including four terms as the Speaker of the House. After such a long political career, how is that you became interested in serving on the Board of Regents, which is political in its own right, but clearly isn't quite the same environment as the legislature?

First, I was asked; and secondly, having been involved in politics for 16 years and then having been pushed out by term limits, I felt a real need and desire to be involved in public service. I thought a little bit about running for the local school board, or doing something that did not require me to move away, and the Board of Regents fit me pretty well because it is not a permanent government job, yet it is a very exciting challenge. But I would have to say it is like when I first went into the State Legislature; I really had no idea what I was getting into. You would think after all of those years in State government I would have known more about this operation and what it really did, but I really didn't.

When you first began service on the Board many observers felt that you maybe had a hidden agenda of some sort. What has motivated you to change the way the Board operates? And, now that you are Chair of the Board, what would you like to change immediately and long-term?

When I came to the Board of Regents I was essentially just hoping to be a very effective member and do the very best I could. I think that, historically, I'm known for trying to figure out what the real problems are--and the bigger problems--then trying to find out what the solutions are and trying to come up with ideas for solutions, and then letting those be modified as necessary to make something happen. And really that's all I had in mind. I mean right off the bat, I got into the culture clash that exists between the higher education governance culture and what I like to call the "legislative mentality" or "Neanderthal mentality." At the first meeting I attended in July 2001 there was a tuition increase that was going to raise tuition, I think, by 12 percent and then one percent would be devoted to enhancing quality. I questioned what we would be getting in the way of quality; it seemed to me like that ought to wait until someone told us what we're getting for it. I'd like to know what quality we were getting for the one percent. And that really became a huge conflict with higher education governance. Apparently you are supposed to keep your mouth shut if you're first appointed to the board. And you don't ask questions in a public way, you work them out behind the scenes. So that's where I got into conflict with other members of the Board as my beliefs about doing business were much different from theirs. I thought that you need to be engaged in the difficult decisions and figure out what they are and get to work on them.

Then, of course, there was tremendous conflict between my viewpoint and Commissioner Crofts's. I always liked him as a person--thought he was a great guy--but I felt he was the wrong messenger and that we had the wrong message. And so I took off after Dr. Crofts in an effort to try to replace him, not because I didn't like him as a person, but because I thought he was the wrong person for the Board; and that did not sit well at all with the Board of Regents. Since I was sort of seasoned in the sandlot it didn't really seem to bother me too much, although I felt very much alone on the Board of Regents for a long time. I don't feel that way now.

One of the themes that you reiterate in your discussions with the other Regents and with the university system's leadership at the Regents meetings is the necessity of the Montana University System re-establishing trust with the Legislature. Why do you think that trust has been broken?

I think that it's been broken for a couple of reasons. First is because of a lack of communication, of not speaking the same language. Second, not sharing the same concerns and understandings for each other's problems. Quite frankly there is an arrogance within higher education and there is an ignorance within people who are in the legislative and executive branches concerning the nature of higher education. I think that there is a gap to be bridged there and I'm willing to try to do that. The bridge needs to be built and there are efforts being made at doing that; but that's going to require a change, a voluntary change I hope, within the culture of higher education and I think some education within the legislative branch and the executive branch, and among the citizens of Montana.

What kinds of strategies do you envision implementing in the foreseeable future in order to re-establish the trust between the Legislature and the MUS? And, do you think that given our current economic climate that even if the MUS can establish that trust, that goodwill will translate into increased funding for the system from the Legislature and thereby help us to lower the tuition burden on students?

Well, I don't think we're going to get increased State support from goodwill. We're going to get increased State support from it being worth it to the taxpayers. And the way that we can establish its worth is by building strong communication between us and the taxpayers, and that's going to include the legislators, the executive branch, and the students. What I believe that we have failed to do in higher education is to walk a mile in someone else's shoes. I feel like we're very concerned about ourselves and how important we are and we need to try to understand what it is that is important to others and show those others what we do can to make their lives better.

If someone asks what I'm pushing, I would answer that I am pushing jobs, income, and quality. Those are really the three big things that I'm trying to push for the Montana University System. Jobs and income I know are what everyone in Montana is most interested in. For higher education it's an important point because without jobs and income, what do our students who graduate do? Without jobs and income, where is the necessary economic base in Montana to supply tuition dollars and to supply State support? So for our own survival, jobs and income are important. What better way for us to interact with the citizens than to interact with them on the issue that is most important to them? So if a taxpayer starts to see that the University System is very concerned with things that are important to him, then maybe he's more interested in what's important to higher education. People like to be in the know, they like their thoughts to be included, and they like to work on things that are important to them. And the best way to work on things that are important for yourself is to work on things that are important to others; and I feel that's what we're doing with jobs and income.

As far as quality goes, I think that that's the thing that we are most frustrated with in defining. I sense the higher education community is frustrated that we don't have the proper funding to maintain the quality and the product we need to provide. It is that quality that everyone expects and is entitled to receive from higher education, and that has cost and it has benefits, and I think we have to define that. I'm glad the faculty are helping with this; but we need to define that in words that people who pay the bills can understand--students and taxpayers--and it has to be the things that do make the difference. Not once while I was in the Legislature did anyone ever come to me and make a case as to anything that would make a difference if State funding were any different than it was. And that's the thing that I think we need to change and I think we are changing.

We have to sell. We are basically selling a product, and we know it's a good product, and we know it's beneficial; but the customer has to know that, and I think that historically those involved in higher education in the state have hoped that people would take it on faith. It is like that, they must know--everyone must know how wonderful higher education is so they should spend the money or we can elect people to the Legislature who will blindly support higher education. I think you can look back in history and find when those people were in control, it didn't really make a whole lot of difference.

Now really what makes the difference is that you have to quantifiably show how that expense or investment has a greater return and, quite frankly, it isn't just in a better educated citizenry or more civilized society. I know those are important things, but I mean there are hard economic facts that show what a wonderful thing our education is in every respect. One of the initiatives we are pushing right now is to try to change the culture of higher education; but we also want to change the culture of budgeting in government. Right now, the way they budget in government is asking how much is the cost--what does it cost the government to do this? So you might take something like research and they say, "well, how much does the research match cost us?" The analysis should include the overall financial impact to the state as whole. And then what is the financial impact to the state government as a whole and what is the impact to the institution? This is a much broader global examination.

I know the faculty have argued that we need to use more hard data to judge some of these things, instead of just basing things on anecdotes or gut feelings, or whatever. I think higher ed is in a good position to help analyze and broaden the analysis that's out there of things that we might be doing. A lot of people think that Montana has no leadership, and I don't really feel that way. I just feel like the leaders are not coordinated towards an objective. I think we have a great opportunity for building communication and actually accomplishing things if we can get people working together.

You surprised many observers this summer when you supported two new Ph.D. programs in History at UM and MSU--the only two humanities-based Ph.D. programs in the state--even though they seem to be duplicative, expensive, and don't seem to benefit the Montana economy directly. Why? And, to follow-up on that, there are many programs in higher education, especially in the traditional humanities and liberal arts fields--history, literature, philosophy, foreign languages, art, music--that aren't strictly vocational in nature and won't translate into immediate economic benefits to the state. Given the current emphasis by the Board on the MUS demonstrating its economic benefit to the state, are these traditional programs in jeopardy?

Things in the category that you just defined, before I ever got on the Board of Regents, were already in big jeopardy because of the economic forces that were already at work in higher education. There was a lot of financial pressure already on those areas. My philosophy is that there are certain courses that are at the core of an institution and, in my mind, those are things that are courses that teach you how to write and how to think, and those tend to be, in my perception, courses that are in the humanities, liberal arts--those kinds of things. With regard to the Ph.D. programs, it was my feeling that how can we call ourselves a university and not have doctoral programs in History? It seems to me that you're not really a university if you don't have a core. I supported both those doctoral programs because I thought it went to the very essence of our definition of being a university.

I don't want us to become a training ground for a bunch of people who want to be in electronics, or computer programming, or other related technical areas--and nothing else. I want to preserve what I would consider to be the core of higher education because I believe that science for the sake of science, writing for the sake of writing, thinking for the sake of thinking, oftentimes will lead us to things that we're not anticipating. I don't think everything is economy driven. What I believe is that we've got to make money to run the system, to preserve the core and run the entire system, and the best way to make money is to focus on things that do make money and to partner up with people who are outside the system to let them know that we are interested in that.

To some extent I'm influenced by my own education. When I went to the University of Montana in the '70s I don't believe there were any core requirements of any kind; I've never had a foreign language, for example. When someone learned that I had been promoted to position of Chairman of the Board of Regents, they looked into home schooling their college-age children! This is a real irony in my opinion. I'm not well educated, so I'm at a certain disadvantage. But I'm not trying to be the academic guru of the Montana University System. I'm trying to be someone who provides leadership, voice, a bridge to the rest of the state, and tries to translate the best I can between the culture of higher education and the culture of non-higher education, while trying to change those cultures a little bit so maybe they will get along better in the future.

When I went to college in the '70s and I went to law school, I could write a paragraph and I would look at that paragraph and I understood that it did not convey the point that I was trying to make. I didn't know what was wrong with the paragraph; but it wasn't what I wanted it to be. And I felt that I had to learn writing through trial and error. When I look back I wish I would have taken more history, more writing, more of those kinds of things. Ultimately, I feel the best training you can give to a person for a life-long education or life-long living is the ability to think, read, and write. It is my belief that it's those core things that best train that, and that's why I think they must be preserved.

There has been sentiment over the years that the MUS is overextended and that to make ourselves healthier might mean drastic amputation, such as closing units. What would you say to such proponents?

I doubt closing units is a good idea when you look at the overall economic impact that those units have wherever they are. It's a good business for each respective area. But, that being said, I think that as we start to analyze things more from an economic standpoint there may be certain things that don't work; but I would hope they would be replaced with things that do work. I can't envision how it would ever be in Montana's interest to close any of the units that it has. Maybe there needs to be some shift in the focus in certain places.

I wish I knew the overall impact, for example, of Western on that community. I think that to some extent because the overall economic impact of higher education has not been properly analyzed, that a lot of times we think that some of these things are more of a drag than they are, because it's not just the spending that people who work for the system do. It's the kid who didn't leave the state; who stays here; it's the money that the out-of-state students bring in. I mean there are so many economic spin-offs from education. I think education is just good business. I really think there's a lack of understanding between "where are the benefits of these various campuses?" and that's what we have to flesh out.

If you're able to do something when you're underfunded it's hard to convince people that you need more funding; and, of course, I think we've done a lot of things with underfunding and we've probably done some things we don't need to be doing. Ultimately, I think both liberals and conservatives would agree that if something has more value than its cost, then they want to buy it. The culture of funding higher education right now doesn't work because we're not packaging our product when we present it to lawmakers in a way that shows what the benefits are versus the cost; and that's what we're trying to do right now. The legislative branch and executive branches are currently not looking at a global economic benefit of higher education; they're looking at the cost. Ultimately, I think until we really properly define our product in a way that we're comfortable with so that we can go out and sell it, I don't know how we can expect other people to buy it.

The way the current Board of Regents meetings are structured, much of the information you and the other Regents receive is filtered and perhaps somewhat spun by the two Presidents and their chancellors. First, do you ever feel that you are being manipulated by them, and secondly, what strategies might you envision in attempting to cut through the spin and finding out what might REALLY be going on on campuses?

I've been in politics long enough, I'm not going to say we're being manipulated. Are people presenting things in a way that they think we want to hear them? Sure, I'm sure that's got to be going on. I don't like the way the Board of Regents meetings are structured. My problem with the process we have now is that I know for a fact that people don't know if and when they really can chime in with their viewpoints. Even the Presidents, I don't think, are totally comfortable knowing when they can or can't put their two cents in on a particular issue; so that needs to be remedied.

The flip side of that is that you probably got a room full of 40 people or 60 people, each of whom could spend an hour and a half giving you their thoughts and views which would be factual and interesting on everything that comes before the Board. Obviously there would have to be some kind of discipline. And what I think is missing is that I would like people to love going to the Board of Regents meetings--that they would feel that they're exciting, they're cutting edge, they're dealing with the big issues of higher education.

But my sense of Regents meetings is that they are sort of disjointed--the agenda is incredibly long--you've got million dollar decisions being made by the Commissioner that never even see a Board of Regents meeting and then you've got a parking fee at Havre that the Board of Regents is deciding, and I can look out in the audience and I know that there is a great deal of boredom.

I have to tell you I do not like Board of Regents meetings; I think there's a great deal of room for improvement. My hope would be that at the May 2004 meeting we might be able to outline an idea of how the Regents meetings might be able to be improved and then maybe by July we could make some changes to the Board of Regents meetings effective for the next meeting after that.

Prior to 1972 (and the Board's creation) members of the faculties and administrations of the various MUS campuses were periodically subject to attack by Montana's politicians. Faculty members were sometimes fired for their publications, or demands were made that they be fired or otherwise disciplined, for example, on grounds that they were communists (as with Leslie Fiedler at UM and Roland Renne at MSU in the 1950s and '60s). What would your position be if such an attack were to occur today?

My position is that there is some limit to academic freedom. I don't know what that is, but there must be some limit to it; it's got to be like the freedom of speech. It's not absolute, you can't go into a crowded schoolroom and yell "fire." A person would have to be responsible and accountable for what he or she said and they're not going to hide behind me as a member of the Board of Regents. I'm not going to say what a person has a right to say or write, but a person needs to face whatever consequences there are. However, with regard to the Board of Regents, if someone came forward and complained that a person wrote a really nasty article about somebody and I just don't agree with it and that person ought to be fired, I believe that's ridiculous because that's just not what we do. But at the same time, since you opened the issue, I feel that there is a certain amount of potential hypocrisy within higher education itself regarding tolerance for other viewpoints. They seem to want many people to be tolerant of their views, but oftentimes they don't express a great deal of tolerance for other views; and I think sometimes that gets into this political diversity issue. I don't actually know the legal limits and definitions of how political people can be within their official positions, but there must be some limits. But mostly I think that people have to face the consequences of their own actions. I think people are going to have to be accountable for what they say.

The Montana Legislature clearly wants a great deal of control over the MUS budget. For example, in 1977 it required that UM cut its faculty by more than 15 percent. How much control should the Legislature have over higher education in Montana? Should it have more than it currently has? Or should it have even less than it currently has?

Well, I don't know what you mean by control because really I don't think they have very much control. They can provide funding, which obviously allows for certain things to happen. What I believe is that this whole issue of oversight and control is symptomatic of the lack of shared communication and shared goals and objectives. It is like having a customer who doesn't like the price of your product. What we need to do in higher education is to show them that the price of the product is a good price and they are getting quality for it.

Of course, the higher education debate is always about money, money, money--it is nearly all we ever talk about. Higher education should approach the Legislature and the executive branch with the philosophy of "we want to know what problems you have and we want to help analyze ideas or solutions you thought up, and we might try to think up some of our own and pass those along to you." The higher education interaction with the legislative branch and the executive branch isn't just about how much money does higher ed get; it becomes a much broader discussion of: a) What are we doing to promote Montana's economy? Not how much does the University System cost? and, b) What are we doing to address social and economic problems that Montana government officials have to address themselves?

The Regents have set the number of credits required for graduation at the various units of the MUS. Is this something the Regents really have the ability to do properly--granting, of course, that they have the legal authority to do it? In other words, how much power should the Regents have over strictly academic issues on the various campuses?

I feel that the Regents should have the ultimate power over all issues within the Montana University System as an appropriate check and balance. How they go about exercising that, I think, is a more important issue. And when it comes to setting the number of credits, it's not something I'm terribly familiar with. The pros and cons of that ought to be discussed in a public forum like the Board of Regents and then it ought to be decided. I do think there are a number of things that the Regents need to determine that, yes, we have the authority to determine this. Should the Regents have the authority? Yes, I think they should have the ultimate authority over everything, if need be. The most graphic example is that a student could take one of your classes and you could give him a "B" and he wanted an "A." He could appeal that all the way to the Board of Regents and the Board of Regents could decide if he gets an "A" or a "B." Now does that make a lot of sense? Probably not, but that is the authority we have and I think we ought to have that. But if we are going to exercise every piece of authority we have, then we are going to have to meet around the clock and we are not going to spend time on the big issues.

What I'm advocating is that I want people to know and recognize that the Regents have the authority; but I want them to look to the Regents and realize that the Regents are focused on the big issues that make the difference for higher education, and that's what they spend their time on. I want people to love going to the Board of Regents meetings, so they can become engaged there, and feel they are actually accomplishing things that make a difference for the System--that they're not wasting time on petty little items that just don't matter.

What do you foresee as the biggest challenges facing the Board of Regents in the coming two or three years?

I think converting what we do in a financial sense and in an academic sense to an understandable language or definition that can be presented, understood, and sold to others. I think that's our biggest challenge. And underlying that challenge is our financial future--our financial future is obviously at stake. I think we're on the brink right now. Everything that we're doing, we're going to crash if the State support doesn't increase. If we freeze everyone's pay and quit maintaining all the buildings maybe we can hang on for 10 or 15 years; but if we're going to grow and expand and improve in the manner everyone demands, then there's going to have to be dramatic increases in State support, in other support, and I think even students' desire to support the system. And if that's going to happen then we have to very carefully convert what it is we're doing and present it in a way that people clearly understand that it's worth the cost.

What would you like to see the Regents accomplish during the remainder of your tenure on the Board?

By the time my term is over, I would like to see us having worked with the people in Montana--their government leaders and others--to define some benchmarks and then we can show that those benchmarks have improved, such as the number of jobs, the average income, those kinds of things. I would like for the institutions all to feel real good about themselves; that people feel that they are being adequately compensated for what they do; that they don't have second-rate or unqualified people working there; that they're comfortable with their co-workers as being competent and the proper people to be working there; that it's a happy place to work; that students feel like they are getting value for their money. When you ask a student "how much does school cost?" they might admit that it is expensive but it's worth it without question; and that the university system is perceived and is actually a main player in solving Montana's problems and helping drive its economy. And if you stop somebody on the street and you asked them "What's the single most important thing to Montana's economy?" they would say, without question, "the Montana University System." And when you stop someone else and say, "I see your daughter is number one in the class here, is she going to be going to Yale or Harvard?" They would reply, "Why would she go there when she could go to the Montana University System?" They would answer that way because not only is it overall a high quality program, but they would also feel that the values of Montana are preserved and there's a deep sense of community when you attend these units because we're all pulling together to make and preserve Montana as a place we all want to live.

[The Montana Professor 14.2, Spring 2004 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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