From the Opinion Desk: Montana Rightfully Prioritizes Higher Education Over Other Costs

Instant gratification marks our generation. With the rapid growth of the Internet and the widespread use of smartphones, this generation has become accustomed to getting what we want, when we want it. Through their budgets, 39 states have set a clear outline for their priorities: the instant notoriety funneled through large sports programs outweighs the practical, long-term benefits of funding leadership in higher education. Sports provide a level of instant gratification that education typically doesn’t. That might explain why, as of the end of fiscal year 2014, the highest-paid public employees in 31 states were football coaches. Another eight basketball coaches led the pay-rankings in their respective states.

Montana is one of the few states which, for various reasons, has taken a different approach to salary-budgeting. The highest-paid public employee in the state of Montana in 2014 was Royce Engstrom, the University of Montana president. According to the state employee database, the highest-paid public employee in Montana for 2015 is the Commissioner of Higher Education, Clay Christian.

I am not in any way degrading the accomplishments of athletic coaches or negating the difficulty and importance of their jobs, but what I am saying is that we’ve made economic decisions that make their jobs important. Fans’ unyielding attendance at games does bring in millions of dollars of revenue each year; however, much of that is recycled within the athletic department through improvement of facilities, travel and the obvious: coaches’ salaries.

If we delve even deeper into the issue, we see that popular sports teams bring notoriety to their schools, which brings students, which brings revenue. It’s not that sports are a bad thing. It’s just that they’re not necessarily inherently valuable. Medical advancement is valuable whether the general population follows its weekly progress or not. Environmental research is valuable despite the fact that thousands of people would never pack themselves into uncomfortable stadium seats to see it take place. If we take away the fans, sports become just like any other club on campus: something with the potential to improve the quality of life of students as they get their educations.

That’s the key word here – education. The purpose of universities is to educate folks and send them off into the world more apt to be productive members of society. In principle, education creates society that is less violent and more accepting of diversity within said society. In recent years, MSU has set a precedent for universities bettering their communities. Much of this can be attributed to President Waded Cruzado’s leadership.

Via the Office of the President, Cruzado’s five-year tenure at MSU has seen hundreds of millions of dollars in competitive research funds won and enrollment records set. Cruzado has overseen the major renovation of Gaines Hall and the construction of both the Animal Bioscience Building and Jabs Hall along with numerous other large construction projects around campus. Cruzado played a crucial role in raising funds for all of these projects and her efforts have directly impacted all students on campus. My education has been bettered by Cruzado, and I’d like to think the world will be a better place for that fact.

Bravo, Montana. I’m proud to participate in higher education in a state where university presidents are valued on an appropriate scale and their salaries follow suit. While going to class for years to get an education may not deliver immediate or obvious results, it is an investment that makes our state a significantly better place to live. Within the Bozeman community, MSU has become a beacon for diversity and acceptance, even winning the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity award in 2014.  

Recently, students rallied behind the passing of a non-discrimination ordinance for the city, making Bozeman a more welcoming community for years to come. On a broader scale, researchers from MSU played a crucial role in groundbreaking research, discovering life in Antarctica; the implications of this research extend even further, providing a template for the search for life on other planets. Put simply, prioritizing education at one university in a small community has impacted the world in at least some way. If education were to be prioritized on a larger, cultural scale, I can only imagine the world we would live in.

Moving forward, it is our duty to consciously monitor the priorities of the institutions and leadership that surrounds us. Cruzado’s presence in Montana has made our community, state and world a better place. Further dialogue on the issue can only improve our university. I’d like to encourage readers to submit letters-to-the-editor at editor@exponent.montana.edu.