By Robert D. Walsh, Ph.D., Adjunct Professor, Bitterroot College
Here is a good example of how people are easily fooled. Although it functions in some ways that resemble the way a college functions, the truth is that Bitterroot College in Hamilton, MT is not really a college. If you look more closely, you will see that it would be more accurate to say that Bitterroot College is, in fact, a University of Montana educational outreach “program.” And that is exactly what Bitterroot College was called in 2009 when it was formed by UM to make some college-level courses available to residents of the Bitterroot Valley. It was called the “Bitterroot College Program.”
In other words, Bitterroot College is really a program that was somewhat misleadingly dubbed a “college” because it functions in some ways like a real college even though it is clearly not a college. Understandably, this name game has caused confusion among Ravalli County residents about the true status of Bitterroot College. So what? you might say. A rose by any other name smells as sweet. Well, not exactly. And especially not if the rose is really a dandelion.
Calling an educational outreach “program” a “college” does not make it be a real college. This little distinction makes a huge difference, as will be made clear below. And it is precisely because Bitterroot College is, in truth, merely an outreach program and not a real college, that Ravalli County residents are being asked in the upcoming May 5th election to vote for creating a real community college in Ravalli County.
“Don’t we already have a community college?” That is the first question listed in the FAQ section of the Bitterroot Valley Community College Initiative website (www.bvCommunityCollege.org) sponsored by the Ravalli County Workforce Alliance. The answer is “No.” But why would residents of Ravalli County think that there already is a community college in the Bitterroot Valley when there actually is not? Here is how Ravalli County residents got fooled about that.
Back on May 8, 2007 the residents of Ravalli County voted in favor of establishing a community college in the valley. But the will of Ravalli County voters was thwarted in February 2009 when the legislature decided not to approve the voters’ decision to establish a community college in Ravalli County. Instead, according to the Bitterroot College website (www.umt.edu/bitterroot-college), the MUS Board of Regents instructed the University of Montana to establish what is best described as an outreach educational program in the Bitterroot Valley.
Thus, in 2009, under the auspices of the Bitterroot College Program Steering Committee, UM established the “Bitterroot College Program.” Many Ravalli County residents, understandably but mistakenly, thought that this was the community college they had voted for in 2007. It wasn’t. An outreach “program” is not a community college. To add to the confusion, in 2012 the Board of Regents decided to change the name of the program from “Bitterroot College Program” to “Bitterroot College.” That certainly made it sound like there is now a genuine college in Ravalli County. There isn’t.
This becomes clearer (or more confusing!) if you go to the University of Montana website and look at the page entitled “Academic Units” (www.umt.edu/academics/colleges-schools-and-departments). Bitterroot College is listed on this page. That creates the appearance of Bitterroot College having the same academic status as the UM “College of Business,” for example, or any of the other eight UM colleges listed on the page. It doesn’t.
One way you can tell that BC is significantly different than any other UM college is that BC is the only “college” listed on the UM “Academic Units” page that is not headed by a Dean. Instead, BC is headed by a “Director”—appropriate for a mere “program” but inappropriate for a real college.
The status (or lack of status!) of BC becomes even more confusing if you visit the website for the Montana University System (MUS). Look at the page entitled “Colleges and Universities” (https://mus.edu/Universities/university_main.html). You will find that Bitterroot College is included with “the sixteen universities and colleges of the Montana University System (MUS).” But that is incorrect. BC is a mere “program” that is being falsely made to look like an independent MUS college! How can you tell? Unlike the 15 other legitimate MUS universities and colleges, BC is not accredited or guided by a charter; is not able to grant degrees of any kind; is not headed by a Dean, and, importantly, is not directly funded through the state appropriations process approved by the legislature like all real MUS units. (BC is financed by discretionary funds disbursed by the Provost’s office at UM.)
Why is it important for Ravalli County residents to be clear about the fact that Bitterroot College is not a real community college? Because Ravalli County residents are being shortchanged by this name-confounding sleight-of-hand. BC is inadequately funded since it is merely a program and not a real, independent college. Yes, BC is doing a pretty good job under the circumstances but is unable to effectively serve the educational needs of Ravalli County because of its limitations as an outreach program that is inadequately funded to meet the needs of Ravalli County.
Look at it this way. Ravalli County residents pay taxes into the state fund that support all the MUS units in Montana. But BC is not a MUS unit. Thus, state tax dollars from Ravalli County that are earmarked for higher education do not come back to Ravalli County. Instead, they go to all the other counties where there are legitimate MUS units. Thus, Ravalli County residents are being duped and shortchanged.
There is a solution to this inequity. Voting to establish an all-new Bitterroot Valley Community College as a truly independent community college in the MUS system will bring those tax dollars back to Ravalli County. And those tax dollars, together with the direct investment made by Ravalli County residents to support a real community college, will produce a substantial return on that investment for the people right here in the Bitterroot Valley. Think about that.
And then vote FOR establishing a Bitterroot Valley Community College District in Ravalli County on your mail-in ballot between April 17th and May 5th.