Mary Sheehy Moe’s presentation at the 50th Anniversary of the Montana Constitution in June 2022:
If you had set out with the intention of creating a completely dysfunctional governance system for higher education, you could not have done a better job than the framers of the 1889 Montana Constitution.
Remember, there were no universities in Montana when they wrote it. There were public schools, though, and the intent to have a university. The framers figured one board could handle both and creatively named it the State Board of Education. It had 11 members. The Governor was a member – and, if he wanted - the Chair, since he appointed the 8 public members of the board. The Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Attorney General were also members.
Although the 1889 constitution required a state board, its powers and duties were to be assigned and could be (and were) retracted or revised at any time by the legislature.
It gets worse. The affairs of each campus had two competing governing bodies reporting to the board. One was a Board of Education committee comprised of 3 board members and the campus president. The other was a local committee of the campus comprised of 3 local businessmen from the campus community appointed by the Governor. The make-up of these two committees changed from one decade to the next but their end runs on each other remained the same.
It gets even worse. If the legislature allocated more funding to the campuses than was actually in its coffers – a frequent occurrence – a Board of Examiners made the decision on how much money each campus would get.
I could tell you tale after tale of catastrophes that occurred during the university system’s 8 decades under that const but in the interest of time, I’ll just focus on recurring themes:
Theme 1: Constant zig-zags in direction resulting in constant firing of the leaders who zigged when it was time to zag. At what is now the University of Montana alone, 6 and arguably 7 presidents of the first 9 presidents were “let go,” many without notice or hearing. The University became known as the “graveyard for presidents.”
Theme 2: Continual repression of academic freedom and the faculty who relied on it. As one scholar described it, “[In the 20th century, the state board of education went on a decades-long] spree of star-chamber proceedings, book-burning, suppression of academic freedom, and the firing, without hearings, of both professors and presidents. Four times the charges were so serious that they were investigated and subsequently blacklisted by the American Association of University Professors.”
Theme 3: Hopeful expansions of the system and duplication of programs did not match the reality of the state budget. The 1889 constitution left the number and location of colleges and universities to the legislature. Right away, Paris Gibson argued for only one university, centered, of course, in Great Falls. As always happens, the way to defeat a strong legislative representative from one community is to create a coalition of delegates from other communities that will be left out in the cold if that first community gets the plum. Missoula, Butte, Dillon, and Bozeman did that. Great Falls got left out in the cold and it’s been shivering ever since.
It gets worse! Montana was struggling to fund just those four units. In fact, although all four were approved in 1893, they couldn’t open the School of Mines or the normal school in Dillon till 1898 because they couldn’t afford to!
Unbelievably, in the middle of the Depression that hit Montana in the ‘20s, when one out of every two farmers lost his land to drought, when four colleges had been struggling for 25 years to make ends meet, the legislature – and governor -- added two more campuses, in Billings and Havre.
Program duplication and mission drift were also de riguer. Before the system was even out of knickers, the agricultural college was introducing programs in the arts and sciences … the university was offering teaching programs that were supposed to be the normal school’s niche … on and on it went with the usual excuses: there’s a greater need statewide than one campus can meet. We have a greater need here than you do there, which ultimately meant we have a legislative delegation that wants it done.
The primary result of the weak governance structure for education was instability. End runs of one entity on another – a president end-running the board to the legislature, a faculty member end-running the president to the local executive board, the local executive board end-running the campus committee of the board to go to the state board as a whole, the attorney general tangling with board of examiners, the governor agreeing to veto legislation if a chancellor would resign … anything could happen and everything did.
The primary result of the 1889 constitution’s insane governance structure for higher education was instability – a university system on constantly colliding, always trembling tectonic plates.
The delegates who sat in these chairs 50 years ago knew that history well. They wisely chose to establish a Board of Regents and established a firewall in the constitution itself between the Board of Regents and political and bureaucratic interference. They were wise as well to place a Commissioner of Higher Education in the Constitution and to place the Commissioner’s reporting line directly to those insulated Regents. How do I know these decisions were wise? The proof is in the pudding.
In the last 50 years we have been served, at all of our campuses, by exceptional leaders. We attract and nurture outstanding faculty and outstanding students. We generate Rhodes Scholars and Truman Scholars and important research. We generate all the people in this room and beyond it that make Montana not so much a state, as one really nice community with really, really long streets.
I think the biggest challenge the Board of Regents has faced in the last 50 years was the restructuring of the 1990s. People had been trying to consolidate the system for 80 years by then, but it was just too hard. However, when the five vo-techs became part of the university system in the late ‘80s, the regents and the legislature now had not six but eleven distinct campuses, each with big local supporters, all demanding a seat at the table and pushing one another out of the chair to get it. Something had to give.
It took a determined Board of Regents, some stellar commissioners, and some pretty amazing campus leaders to get it done, but they stayed the course. We now have two flagship universities, each with 3 campuses in its domain, one of which is a stand-alone two-year college.
The restructuring has been mostly positive. The UM and MSU share resources that accrue efficiencies for the campuses under their domain. In my view, though, they haven’t done enough to ensure the viability of the non-flagship campuses. Each of those campuses should have a niche that is enticing and fiercely protected by regents and flagship presidents alike. Instead some campuses have just languished, without a mission and with the niches they once had duplicated elsewhere. Nobody likes to be seen as poor kin and all the campuses know that in an enrollment-driven system them ‘at has, gits.
I also think that over time the Board of Regents has failed to engage in much of the deep digging and true debate that lead to good decision-making, generally following the Commissioner’s lead, rather than the other way around. Both the Regents and the Commission seem more concerned with avoiding controversy than protecting the firewall separating their work from the politics of the moment.
As with so many of our precious assets – our public lands and our elected offices, for starters – money talks on campus and mega-money screams. It’s hard to say “No” when someone wants to give a boatload of money to build the new zaaa building, but have you ever thought of all the new employees and ongoing expenses required to maintain it – now an into perpetuity? We the nameless people will be saddled with those expenses and we may have to sacrifice other programs and even other campuses to draw students to the zaaa.
The recently adopted regents policy on naming buildings – the one that self-negates if the donor gives a “transformative gift,” – what is that? Who you gonna tell their gift is not transformative enough? The whole thing reminds me of nothing so much as that exchanges that ends with “We’ve already established what you are, Madam. We’re just dickering over price.” But as my dad used to say, “It’s easy to be virtuous when the wolf’s not at your door.”
Finally and most importantly, faced with a system that is too big and a legislative allocation that is never big enough and lulled into complacency by the lure of federally funded student loans over the last 50 years, the Board of Regents, the legislature, and all of us have shifted the true cost of higher education to the people least able to shoulder it: students.
When my husband came home from his high school graduation, he entered a house that had nothing in it but a box of his clothes. He worked his way through college in four years and one quarter and graduated without debt. That’s virtually impossible to do today. Too many of our students leave college so burdened by debt they have to leave Montana to pay it off.
There’s a different kind of debt we should be encouraging college students to assume. I am one of 11 children, 10 with degrees from a unit of the Montana University System, 19 degrees in all. Fifteen of those degrees were earned by my sisters and me. Nothing changes the trajectory of a woman’s life like a college degree. Nine of my siblings still live here. In our jobs, in our community engagement and in our public service, we’ve tried to pay Montana’s investment in us back. I want my grandchildren to assume that kind of debt and have the same wonderful life the Montana University system made possible for me and my family.
But you framers gave us a framework. It’s not just the job of the Regents, or the Commissioner, but all of us, to make sure our system of higher education keeps the main thing the main thing: to develop the full educational potential of each person. The 1972 constitution gave us the tools. But we have to use them.