University Bashing in Our Resource-Rich State

By Beacon Staff

The reaction by some claiming to represent Montana’s resource industries to a recent conference entitled “power shift” at the University of Montana is both sad and short-sighted. Apparently they were offended by the fact that much of the program dealt with environmental problems associated with resource development. Thus, we read opinions bearing the titles, “Universities sucking dry the industries that keep them alive?” and one bearing the threat, “Don’t be surprised if academic choices have legislative consequences.” One of these opinion writers urged the students of diesel mechanics, mining, construction and “other honorable” professions at the smaller colleges of Montana to be “outraged that their peers (at Montana’s two large universities) who are being taught how to destroy the industries they are trying to get jobs in.”

This particular type of “university bashing” goes on more in our state than others, I suspect, because Montana is a resource-rich state and much of our state’s revenues and jobs come from the extraction and export of those resources. Montana has a long history of resource extraction from which we can learn, however. It is not something that started with the recent boom in fossil fuel production. One can look way back at Montana’s gold, silver and copper extraction era for example and learn how much wealth and culture was left behind after those riches were carries off to other places.

Another very different story also provides an excellent lesson for Montanans and that is the story of Israel. The Old Testament tells us that Moses led his people through the desert of the Middle East for 40 years until he finally found the “promised land,” which turned out to be one of the few in the Middle East that had no oil. The only natural resource they did have were some forests, which they promptly overused and turned into deserts. Therefore, Israel is one of those countries (Taiwan and Japan are others) that heavily invested in their only remaining and sustainable resource – that is, their people. They developed first rate schools for their children and comprehensive colleges and research universities for their young adults. Today, Israel is clearly the most advanced country in the Middle East with respect to its financial well-being and the diversity and breadth of its culture. In retrospect, they were fortunate to not have an abundance of natural resources and I doubt that Israelis complained very much about the full development of their universities.

Whenever a country goes that route, however, one must also expect that the thoughts that will inevitably come out of those massive university think tanks of young adults and their teachers will go in all directions. That is a good thing, however. It can help a country or state ultimately go in directions the make sense in both the long and short terms. It is also true that the education institutions within the total system are likely to develop cultures and priorities that differ somewhat from each other. That is also a good thing. Israel needed skilled technicians just as much as it needed academic experts. It is a mistake, however, to play one against the other. All are good and serve a purpose if the goal of the state or country is to become the financial and cultural equal of others.

So the legitimate question can be asked, “are those of us who have chosen to live our lives in Montana blessed or cursed by the fact that our state is rich in natural resources?” My own opinion is that we are blessed – but only if we use that wealth to enrich the culture of Montana – and not just to provide technical skills appropriate for the export of our riches. The authors of the opinion pieces I referred to above have every right to argue against the opinions of any one or any group at their public universities. And they should do just that – instead of using their wits and energy to threaten their existence.

Eric Grimsrud lives in Kalispell.

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