by William Skink
In a recent post, James Conner claims there is something rotten in Missoula, but he can’t figure out if it’s our community that’s rotten, the University, or both. Here are some of the factors Conner offers as explanation for the decline of enrollment at the University of Montana:
The immediate impacts are financial squeezes on UMT, which needs to make cuts totaling $12 million, and Missoula, and painful cutbacks in the humanities at UMT. The longer term impact may be a permanent reduction in the size and reputation of UMT as the state of Montana embraces educational objectives that emphasize training for the professions at the expense of the liberal arts.
A long string of athletic scandals at UMT hasn’t helped. Nor have allegations that a rape culture exists on campus and in the community. Add to that constant reports of crime, public drunkenness, and homelessness, in Missoula. Parents and students alike may be concluding that Bozeman is a much safer place to pursue a college degree.
Missoula is a liberal college town, that much is obvious. And we exist as a liberal bubble in a predominately conservative state, that is also obvious. So what does being a liberal town mean? Here is one quick definition of what “liberal” means:
Liberals believe in government action to achieve equal opportunity and equality for all. It is the duty of the government to alleviate social ills and to protect civil liberties and individual and human rights. Believe the role of the government should be to guarantee that no one is in need.
What does this definition mean for Missoula? Let’s start with equal opportunity. When it comes to living in Missoula, there is a big disparity between what it costs to live in Missoula and what most jobs pay. The government can subsidize housing through agencies like the Missoula Housing Authority, but it doesn’t get close to meeting the actual need. For prospective students, that means the housing market will bleed them dry.
And why is housing so expensive? Because there is finite land for development which makes meeting demand for housing difficult. It seems that those who can afford to live in Missoula are those who made their money elsewhere (like the east coast) and then they transplant to this idyllic valley where the desire to live in a liberal utopia meets the reality of the negative side of growth, which are the urban problems we are seeing increase: addiction, violence and poverty.
Local and state governments have been inadequate in dealing with these social ills. Instead of funding what could help, Missoula is instead tapping the taxpayer piggy bank for more parks while the private sector is building more banks, breweries, distilleries and casinos.
And then we have civil liberties. While Missoula’s rape culture was (and still is) flourishing, our city was busy passing laws to make benign behavior, like sitting on sidewalks downtown, illegal. The worst example of this violation of civil liberties was introduced by an alleged “progressive” who sensationalized examples of women being chased downtown by homeless people to nearly get Missoula sued by the ACLU. We have wasted years with failed efforts to try and sanitize the areas in Missoula where the problems are most visible while the core factors contributing to chronic homeless are ignored.
Missoula, at least to me, seems more concerned with image than substance. This was most apparent when Jon Krakauer came out with his book that prominently featured MISSOULA in its title. When the book came out, the concern seemed to be about the image of the football team, the image of the university and the image of our town. While some great work has been done to improve the criminal justice system, there continues to be serious problems overloading the system, rendering it unable to deal with social ills, like addiction, which is fueling violence and keeping our local detention facility bursting at the seams.
In just the month of December there have been multiple murders. One was ascribed to meth use. Another appears to be a domestic violence situation turned lethal, as predicted by the victim, who was found dead in Pattee Canyon over the weekend. Another incident hasn’t been officially deemed a murder yet, but the little information reported makes it look like something violent happened.
I’ve lived in Missoula for 15 years now. I got my liberal arts education here, got married here and started my family here. And I spent the last seven years trying to understand how our community deals with some of these social ills and what I’ve learned is this: we aren’t dealing with them. We keep first responders in perpetual triage while more money is spent on studies and meetings are endlessly attended.
I know, I’m a total downer. At least we will have some pretty parks to look at, and a nice new bank at the corner of Orange and Broadway and a Verizon store to complain about because it’s the surface images that people in this community seem to respond to more than the underlying problems that continue to worsen.