Havre Daily News
Montana State University-Northern may be dealing with an identity crisis.
Is MSU-N a university in the classical sense, seeking to broaden its students with a liberal arts education, or a vocational college aiming to train workers in fields as varied as education, nursing and automotive and diesel technology?
MSU-N instructors and a scant handful of students gathered Wednesday to discuss problems in higher education across the country and, some said, threats to Northern's future.
But much of the discussion centered on a debate of what type of institution Northern is, and the varying opinions of what it should be.
“I think that, perhaps, Northern is struggling with ... its identification,” Educational Opportunity Center site coordinator Mike Ley said. “I don't think this school is a university anymore. I think this is a place a lot of people come for skilled training to go out into the world and make money.”
True universities, he added, offer courses in philosophy and conduct scientific research.
“It appears as if ... we don't really have a true understanding of our identity,” education professor Darlene Sellers said.
Sellers and her husband, associate professor Curtis Smeby, orchestrated the forum, attended by about two dozen people.
She said faculty need to discuss the issues they see at Northern and in higher education across the state and country.
“We've been discussing different issues in higher education, and we thought it would be a good idea to bring those discussions to a broader audience,” she said.
Sellers cautioned that the views and opinions expressed during the lunch hour were not those of the school or the faculty union.
English professor John Snider railed against what he called a bloated administration - though one dean in attendance said the larger staff is needed for accreditation- and cried foul over the school's lack of liberal arts courses, such as philosophy.
Snider said that as long as most people view Northern as a vocational school, “We're not going to have a real university.”
He said universities should not exist only to train the workforce, and that the industry and business community should not dictate schools' courses and programs.
“I'm an optimist,” he added. “We can do better. We must do better.”
Other instructors said they feel uneasy with a shift in higher education - one where faculty have less control over curriculum than administration.
Others disputed the idea that there are problems at Northern.
Associated business professor Lanny Wilke asked whether taxpayers would support higher education for its own good. He said job training “speaks louder.”
“Anyone who has a job, I want them to know the dickens about what they're doing,” Wilke said.
Technical sciences instructor Terry Munson asked why a university had to follow the model of Plato's Academy, as Snider suggested. To him, a university is a university, regardless of the whether the courses teach students how to rebuild a transmission or to understand the lessons of Socrates.
Technical sciences instructor Byron Ophus said he gets several calls each day from businesspeople curious to know why college graduates don't have the basic writing and arithmetic skills to do their jobs.
Tim Hodges, who does not teach at the university but is involved with its radio station, said that problem falls on public education's shoulders.
Smeby detailed what he considered to be threats to higher education on a national level: federal cuts to financial aid coupled with tuition increases, the “Academic Bill of Rights” - which seeks to change faculty hiring practices in order to eliminate a perceived liberal bias among professors - and efforts to limit dialogue and discourse at educational institutions.
Will Rawn, interim dean of the college of education, arts & sciences and nursing, said that, at many American universities, schools of business and economics have garnered more power, while social sciences and the arts have become weaker.
“It has to do with the public's thinking ... about what it wants out of higher education,” he said.
After the discussion, Smeby said he was “very pleasantly surprised” with the talk.
Sellers said the instructors are trying to hold similar forums the first Wednesday of each month. The topic for April will be women's issues, and May's topic will be diversity of the students, faculty and course offerings, she said.