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Speaking Out

Changing Hearts and Minds

In April, Montana State University became the final college campus in the state to join the Montana Education Association (MEA)-Montana Federation of Teachers (MFT) partnership.

Now our statewide faculty leadership committee, the Coalition of Union Faculty (CUF), is forging ahead in an effort to find solutions for the financial and managerial problems that have plagued the Montana University System (MUS) for years. The Montana Coalition hopes to show how an energized faculty union can reinvent higher education in our state and thereby provide all of our citizens an opportunity to earn a college degree that is now the ticket to the American dream.

First, the Coalition is leading the effort to organize all of the university community “partners” (students, faculty, staff, and other supporters) as “advocates for higher education.”

Our nation’s higher education system has long been one of the best in the world, but state governments have been cutting our funding, causing chronic debilitation. We intend to convince our governor and legislature to “value a college education” and recognize that higher education is valuable in economic terms. We need the equivalent of the GI-Bill that followed World War II as part of a continuous, concerted effort to change the hearts and minds of the public, thereby encouraging investment in education from preschool through graduate school.

Second, the Coalition seeks internal reform in the MUS. We have been brought to this crisis because resources have been chronically drained from the core mission of the MUS. The major asset in the MUS, or any educational enterprise, is the faculty. Here in Montana, the erosion of the faculty because of inadequate compensation and lack of resources is increasing all too rapidly.

With the support of the MEA-MFT, the Coalition hopes to provide an example for how organizing the state’s higher education campuses can make a difference. MUS management has begun to recognize this and seems more willing than ever to enter discussions with their employees to find innovative solutions. Overall, the Montana experience shows that organizing on college and university campuses to empower faculty needs to be the wave of the future.

Douglas Coffin is a professor of molecular genetics at the University of Montana. He is vice president of the University Faculty Association and chair of the Coalition of Union Faculty.

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