Keep Energy Politics out of Higher Ed Budgeting

Oil pipelines should not have a place in discussions about funding for Montana’s public universities. Unfortunately, that is precisely where the conversation began on Tuesday as Montana University System (MUS) leaders presented to a legislative subcommittee.

Before MUS leaders spoke, Rep. Roy Hollandsworth, R-Brady, chairman of the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, said the university system should “lead the fight” to protect natural resources development in Montana, the Missoulian reported. “We need a voice for oil in eastern Montana,” he said, “because the press likes […] to report anything that anybody’s worried about or complains about” — a reference to public battles over fracking and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

Saying he wanted universities to serve as a “voice of reason” on natural resource exploration issues, Hollandsworth criticized university presidents Waded Cruzado and Royce Engstrom for helping sponsor a “Power Shift” conference at UM last year. The event encouraged environmental activism and included speakers critical of coal production and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

Aside from sidetracking the education subcommittee’s real work, Hollandsworth’s sadly ham-handed attempt at pressuring U-system leaders fails to give Montana’s higher education system the credit it deserves for its diverse contributions to the state’s development.

While it is true that oil and gas represent a vital part of our economy, it is also true that fossil fuel extraction has very real social and environmental consequences. It falls to our university system to equip our future leaders to strike the necessary balance between economic development and sustainability — perhaps not serving as a singular “voice of reason,” but giving many voices tools to drill down into the truth of the matter.

Montana’s universities train both petroleum engineers and scientists who worry over drilling’s environmental impact, after all. Along with restoration ecologists who reclaim mine sites, activists who point out extraction’s human costs and public leaders who have the unenviable task of weighing competing priorities. Which is kind of the point of public higher education.

As quick as lawmakers are to jump to conclusions about the U-system’s priorities without understanding the full complexity of its mission, higher-ed leaders are justifiably keen to play up their institutions’ contributions to industry. Cruzado, Engstrom and Higher-Education Commissioner Clayton Christian wore coal industry lapel pins to Tuesday’s hearing, and Christian highlighted higher ed’s proud role in resource extraction in a guest column that appeared in newspapers across the state.

Understandably, they won’t emphasize their equally important contributions to renewable energy sources. Montana’s major universities, for instance, have signed the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) — an agreement which recognizes the urgent reality of human-caused global warming and requires universities to take action to reduce their carbon footprint and incorporate sustainability into their academic curriculums.

Given the import of these conversations to the future of our state, that’s a shame. We don’t have to look too far to see the cost of political meddling winning out over open discourse in a public institution, after all.

At the University of Wyoming, for example, where more than 60 percent of the university’s budget comes from state coal, oil and gas revenue, a recent public art installation entitled “Carbon sink” roused so much pushback by lawmakers and energy officials that the university’s president had it removed. Some even threatened to cut public funding derived from natural resource revenue or otherwise “remind” the university of the incident the next time it sought donations from the energy industry. Absent a meaningful conversation about the real issues, our neighbor to the south is poorer for the debacle.

While we are fortunate to have a slightly less rigid political climate, U-system leaders will be far more likely to be seen wearing coal lapels than ACUPCC ballcaps during the next several weeks, regardless. Montana’s universities are pressured to demonstrate their support for fossil fuels while simultaneously committed to exercising needed leadership on climate change, forcing our leaders to spend their valuable time playing political games rather than working directly to strengthen Montana’s capacity for navigating complicated environmental issues.

Despite what some legislators seem to believe, it’s not hypocritical to use oil and coal revenue to fund an educational system that carves out space for ideas that don’t always align with the interests of those lawmakers, taxpayers or industry. Instead, it’s an integral part of progress.

As major projects like Keystone XL continue to raise the prominence of energy development in Montana’s politics, lawmakers must put debates about natural resources aside as they evaluate funding levels for higher education — lest our state follow Wyoming’s regrettable example. That’s because a university steered by politics is not a university at all.