Mary Sheehy Moe Commentary: “Missoula College: A Cinderella Story

Well, a new legislature has convened, and for the fourth straight session, Missoula’s two-year college will be pleading with legislators for a new facility. For the last decade, the facility that began as a vo-tech and was recently re-christened Missoula College of the University of Montana has been bursting at the seams. Constructed in the late ‘60s for a student body of 700, Missoula College now enrolls roughly 2500 students. The College’s programs have grown from the strictly occupational to the full array of community college offerings – workforce programs, transfer degrees, developmental coursework, dual enrollment classeses for high school students, and community outreach.

It hasn’t been easy. Like Montana’s other university system two-year colleges, Missoula College has fought the vo-tech stereotype for years – the local perception that it’s a last resort for people who – well, just aren’t “college material.” Although its tuition is much lower than the university’s, its class sizes generally much smaller, and its student-centeredness more historic, for many years Missoula College was Missoula’s best-kept higher education secret.

That’s pretty much in the past now. But unlike most of the other two-year colleges, Missoula College has had no significant facilities improvements since it was built. In 2005 and 2007, the investments the legislature made in facilities in Great Falls, Billings, and Helena gave those colleges a much-needed makeover. Now high school kids are wowed when they visit those beautiful campuses for career days or dual enrollment courses. Now businesses cite their state-of-the-art facilities as a major factor in why they choose to locate in those communities.

Not Missoula College. Like Cinderella, for over 8 years she’s had to watch her step-sisters go to the ball and hope that someday her prince will come. Enrollments at Missoula College have shown the highest and steadiest increases of the former vo-techs. Sought-after programs have waiting lists of students clamoring to get in. To provide more space, construction students have built “temporary” trailers for classrooms and faculty offices … certainly not the kind of thing that wows students or industry.

But this isn’t about cosmetics. It’s about the quality of learning – and about the quality of the degree. Twenty years ago, I taught in Helena’s two-year college in trailers they called temporary — though they’d been there for years. In the winter, my students were so cold they wore their coats in class – and so did I. Forget state-of-the-art technology. Our focus on technology was putting the right amount of snow on the thermostat to kick the heat up. That’s the kind of experience Missoula College is facing now – or soon will be.

Then there’s the splintering of the campus, with the inconvenience to faculty and students traveling all over town requires. As just one example, healthcare jobs in Montana pay extremely well for graduates with two-year degrees. All healthcare programs require science courses with labs. Not possible at Missoula College. Students and faculty traipse around town, depending on the College’s gracious partners throughout the community to provide the lab experiences they need. But it may not be enough. All healthcare programs also require professional accreditation. This hop-a-freight approach to programming threatens accreditation, and without that, students’ degrees have little value.

Space matters. This college matters. Graduates from two-year colleges find good jobs with good wages right in their communities. Other graduates lateral over to four-year colleges and because of what they’ve saved on two-year college tuition, they complete a bachelor’s degree much more affordably. Local businesses prosper by having their two-year-college provide training customized to tap their potential. Although Missoula College is attempting to do all that for the community it serves, in its present facility, the strain is taking its toll.

The price tag for a new facility for Missoula College is hefty – $47 million. Part of the reason it’s that high is that the college will be the first facility on UM’s south campus, so that price tag includes laying the infrastructure for future growth. Yeah, that’s a lot of dollars – but making the investment in Missoula College makes a lot of sense. In a legislative session where the mantra is jobs-jobs-jobs, this kind of investment will ensure jobs in Missoula and Ravalli counties, perhaps the most populous area of the state, for decades to come.
It’s time for Missoula to stop spatting about golf and get serious about the sub-par facilities of the college whose historic and continuing reason for being is serving that community and region. It’s crucially important that you people in Missoula and Ravalli counties tell your legislators to support HB 14, the bonding bill for Missoula College. And because 700 Missoula College students come from all across the state, no matter where you live in Montana, you should be telling your legislators the same thing. It’s time to get this Cinderella out of the ashes and into the 21st century.

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Mary Sheehy Moe Commentary: “Not Looking Away”

In an interesting feature a few weeks ago, Sally Mauk interviewed sociologist Michael Kimmel on the issue of sexual assault. Dr. Kimmel pointed out that while rape actually occurs between one individual and another, it’s made possible by a culture, a culture that looks the other way.
Given the bright light shown on the incidence of sexual assault at the University of Montana in recent months, Dr. Kimmel’s comment troubled me. I recalled a conversation I had with three university students some time ago on the subject of being “roofied.” I had never heard the expression before, so these young women educated me. Getting “roofied” is when someone puts a drug in your drink that leaves you unable to know, resist, or remember what happens hours after that. These three all claimed to know someone who knew someone who had been roofied – someone who had woken up half-clad and totally dazed in a parking lot, a field, or the apartment of some guy she kinda knew.
I took these claims with more than a grain of salt. What was harder to shake, though, was the fact that these girls had all had adopted practices to protect against getting “roofied.” They started to tell me some, and as they did, more young women joined our group and added their own tried-but-true anti-roofie methods: They always went to parties with friends and they left with friends. They brought their own cups and drank only out of their own cups. They never shared their drink with anyone. “Not even someone using a straw,” one girl said. “Especially not someone with a straw,” another insisted, and they all nodded their heads knowingly.
I left that conversation thinking, Wow. Getting roofied? And it’s now so de rigeur on campuses that young women educate one another about the protection protocols? But I never reported this conversation to anyone at the University of Montana. It didn’t seem like my business. It wasn’t until I heard Dr. Kimmel explain that rape is supported by a culture that looks away from abherrant behavior, that accepts it in a way, that I reflected, wow. Those young women live in that culture. They invited me in. And I looked the other way.
It wasn’t the first time. When one of my daughters attended UM almost a decade ago, she worked at a popular watering hole there. It was especially popular among football players, and my daughter would routinely complain to me about the harassment they continually subjected her to, sometimes in the presence of assistant coaches. I worked in the university system at that time and at one point considered taking it right to the top. But my daughter said she would take care of it, and she did. On the larger issue, though, the sort of boys-will-be-boys tolerance for crude and predatory treatment of women by and among some athletes, I guess we both looked the other way.
There’s been a great deal of comment on the sexual assault controversies at the University of Montana for the past six months. The Missoulian reporters who have diligently dogged this story have been vilified by some of the more lathered-up citizens of Griz Nation. Incensed alumni have demanded to know the particulars of the non-renewal of the contracts of Robin Pflugrad and Jim O’Day. Enraged bloggers insist that the University is protecting athletes, rather than young women. And in the eye of this storm, criticized by all these groups, is University of Montana President Royce Engstrom.
I’ve followed President Engstrom’s actions on this matter since the allegations of sexual assaults first came to light. And whatever else you say about President Engstrom’s handling of this difficult, difficult issue, you must concede this: he hasn’t looked the other way.
As Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian told the Regents last month, Engstrom called him in mid-December, before the assault issue had become public, and told him, This situation is far-reaching and deeply disturbing. It’s going to be a rocky road, but we must pursue it.
Engstrom has stayed that course ever since. While some on his staff fretted about PR, he went ahead and had the community forums. When he reached the conclusion that he needed new leadership in the athletic department to effect a change in campus culture, he made the change, knowing it wouldn’t be popular in some quarters and that he wouldn’t be able to elaborate. While the County Attorney fumed at the intrusion of the Department of Justice into Missoula matters, Engstrom accepted the DOJ’s presence, saying we think we’ve put good procedures in place, but if there is something to be learned from the DOJ investigation, we want to learn it. He has navigated a complex landscape, consistently mindful of the competing rights, reputations, and expectations of victims, accused, personnel, and public. And from start to finish, in an environment where it seems everybody has something critical to say about someone else, he has consistently avoided name-calling, second-guessing, and buck-passing.
Has he made mistakes? Yes, and he’s admitted them. Does he have regrets? Sure. But as he has said since last December, the University of Montana is going to do what’s right, regardless of fall-out. In the short run, that may damage the reputation of the university. But in the long run, the university will be stronger and better for it – and, most importantly, so will its students.
As President Engstrom told Sally Mauk recently, he is now keenly aware that sexual assault shatters young women’s dreams. They come to college full of optimism, anticipating a creative, productive, and happy time, and sexual assault steals that from them. I would add that it just doesn’t steal their dreams. It steals their reality – their world and their worldview is immediately and permanently changed. Royce Engstrom can’t get those things back for them. But he – and you and I and the entire university community – can do better by tomorrow’s young women. The culture of predation and entitlement that led to these assaults was a long time in the making and, like it or not, it happened to some extent because too many of us looked the other way. It’s time for all of us to join President Engstrom on the long, hard road to a healthier campus culture.