MEA-MFT members to Montana Board of Regents: "We need to work together."
To regents: 'we have to work together'
May 29, 2009
“This isn’t a ‘you vs. us’ situation. We have to work together. We’ve got a crisis coming.”
That was the passionate message of MEA-MFT member Dr. Doug Coffin, University of Montana professor, at the May 29 Board of Regents meeting in Great Falls.
Coffin, who serves as vice president of his local MEA-MFT union, the University of Faculty Association, used sobering statistics, mixed with humor and hope, to set the stage for higher education advocacy.
MEA-MFT member-leader Doug Coffin addresses the Board of Regents May 29, 2009
“For years, the University System has been chronically starved for funding,” he said. “We want to work with you to grow the pie.”
The 2009 Montana Legislature cut millions of dollars in higher education funding from Governor Schweitzer’s original budget, Coffin explained.
The legislature “backfilled” the cuts with federal stimulus money – but that is one-time-only funding. At the same time, the legislature took higher education funding back to 2006-07 funding levels – resulting in a real cut of $20 million. Coffin warned that the next legislature will see a $100 million shortfall in higher education funding.
“The only way out is for all of us to work together,” Coffin said. Yet all too often, faculty are excluded from the conversation, he said. As an example, Coffin pointed to the Board of Regents’ recent strategic plan, which fails to mention the word “faculty” even once in its 40 pages.
“We feel we’re not on your radar screen,” he told the regents. "Strategic plans need to come from the bottom up.“
Several regents protested that they had high respect and admiration for faculty, but they said economic times prevent increasing faculty’s chronically low salaries.
But Coffin pointed out that faculty have been asked to take a pay freeze four out of the past eight years –even when the economy has been rosy.
“It’s not all about paychecks,” he said. “Our departments are running out of resources. That’s what’s destroying morale, because we love our jobs."
Faculty "recognize we need to step up and take ownership," Coffin continued. "We need to define the kind of university system we want in Montana and decide how to fund it. We need to break out of this box. Then we can deal with hard times.”
Coffin laid out the case for advancing education, preschool through grad school, as the key to Montana’s economic future, lifelong learning, and occupational training.
He said Montana needs a grassroots effort to counteract the state’s trend towards abdicating its responsibility to fund higher education, and he invited the regents, students, administration, alumni, and others to join in the effort.
“That’s the only way out,” he said.
Coffin’s presentation came the second day of the regents’ two-day meeting. On May 28, MEA-MFT Executive Director Erik Burke pleaded with the regents to do the right thing and raise tuition in light of higher education shortfalls.
MEA-MFT has joined with college and university student leaders in urging a tuition increase. Read MEA-MFT Executive Director Erik Burke's testimony on tuition increases.