Education Energy

UM news: energy, enrollment and the liberal arts

Here’s an oft repeated non-fact:

One in $10 dollars the state of Montana collects for its general fund is related to the coal industry, or some $400 million to $500 million each biennium … A big chunk of the (Montana) University System budget comes from the Montana general fund, and so those coal dollars go directly to our universities.

That quote comes from, not surprisingly, Chuck Denowh, spokesman for Count on Coal Montana, an industry booster group.

The same “1 in 10 dollars” amount was mentioned by Sen. Doug Kary, a Billings Republican, when he talked about the fiscal impact that closing the Colstrip generating units would have on state coffers.  Anything to do with divestiture from coal, apparently, costs the general fund one in ten dollars.

Sen. Dick Barrett, a Missoula Democrat and former UM economics professor, has another take on coal’s impact:

Kary says that closing Colstrip would produce a “$145 million to $155 million a year tax hit” to the state, “about 1 in 10 of the dollars the state collects in tax revenue each year.” Actually, if he had read the BBER study carefully, he would know that $145 million represents the BBER’s estimate of how much lower state revenue from all sources (not just taxes) will be in 2025. In 2013, state revenue from those sources was about $8 billion. We don’t know what that revenue will be in 2025, but something in the neighborhood of $10 billion is a conservative estimate. In that case, $145 million in reduced revenue will translate into 1 out of every 69 dollars the state collects, not 1 out of 10, as Kary would have it.

(Here’s a link to UM’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research study although portions of it have been called into question.)  I should also point out that the general fund contributes maybe 20 percent of the university system’s operating budget.  That means way less than 1 out of every 69 dollars of coal money goes to colleges and universities.  I’ll let you do the math.

I bring this up because there’s a lengthly article in today’s Missoulian about a student group calling for the UM Foundation to divest from fossil fuels.  The foundation, which raises funds for the university, has a board that voted unanimously not to divest.  It claims about eight to ten percent of its portfolio is tied up in  “energy companies.”  It would be nice to know what sort of a return it’s getting these days on its energy investments.

I’ve copied a statement from Reinvest Montana, the campus group calling for divestment, on Page Two.  To me, it seems like a win-win for the foundation to divest from the fossil fuel industry.

As we all know, though, the University of Montana is seeing tough times.  The Bozeman Chronicle has an analytical piece on why Montana State University is faring much better than UM.

The major shift in enrollment numbers from UM to MSU is because of money, money, money.  In the wake of the Great Recession, students want to make sure there are decent paying jobs awaiting them when they graduate, especially if they’re saddled with enormous debt.  Also, MSU has spent a lot of money in the recruitment arena, hiring a consulting firm for about $1 million a year to go after quality, out-of-state high school students.

I harbor no ill will toward the Bobkittens.  MSU is a fine institution with excellent programs and departments.  I just hope our country isn’t entirely made up of engineers and computer scientists; that there will still be a few poets, philosophers and musicians around.

I came away with three conclusions from the articles I’ve linked to: the university system needs a better way to fund its institutions (or at least a serious commitment from the legislature to adequately fund the system), that despite the fact fossil fuel industry taxes make up a tiny portion of university funding, it is still extremely shortsighted to rely on it as a source at all, and that liberal arts programs are being undervalued in the United States in general.

I’ll leave you with this link to a Harper’s Magazine article.  It argues that public universities have a responsibility to turn out citizens, in the broadest sense of the word, not just taxpayers.  Here are some outtakes:

Public universities are stigmatized as elitist because they continue in the work of democratizing privilege, of opening the best thought and the highest art to anyone who wants access to them.


The badness of the worst we do does not diminish the goodness of the best we do. That our best is so often artistic rather than utilitarian, in the usual senses of both words, is a truth with which we should learn to be at peace.


If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.


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  • I learned that colleges recruited students, not just jocks, in the spring of the year I graduated from high school when I received a “please consider us” letter from a liberal arts school that was located in a cold climate and that I had no intention of attending. The letter seemed improper then, and it still seems improper. It reminded me, and still reminds me, of selling washing machines, aluminum siding, new cars, and perhaps even riparian real estate that only floods once a year.There’s no need to recruit. Educate students well and the word will get out. And students and parents should rely on third party information, never on a sales pitch from a college’s recruiting staff. Never trust a recruiter to tell the truth. Never.

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Pete Talbot

'Papa’ Pete Talbot is first and foremost a grandfather to five wonderful grandchildren. Like many Montanans, he has held numerous jobs over the years: film and video producer, a partner in a marketing and advertising firm, a builder and a property manager. He’s served on local and statewide Democratic Party boards. Pete has also been blogging at various sites for over a decade. Ping-pong and skiing are his favorite diversions. He enjoys bourbon.

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