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The Regents followed history in order not to repeat it

by Keith Edgerton
| June 6, 2021 12:00 AM

Last month, the Montana university system’s governing body, the Montana Board of Regents, voted unanimously to file a lawsuit challenging House Bill 102. The law allows for open carrying of firearms on public college campuses and in classrooms by nearly anyone. It was to take effect June 1. The legislature authorized $1 million to implement the law, though only if the Regents didn’t challenge it in court. It was truly a million-dollar decision.

The Regents’ decision drew on our deep, troubled history in higher education with the political and economic forces that govern the state.

For nearly 50 years, the board, to varying degrees of success, has sought to protect and insulate our higher educational system from whatever political winds may be battering against it. The 100 citizen/public servants who crafted our current state constitution in 1972 were especially sensitive to our long history of corporate and political abuse and created the board in some measure to protect the university system. It would have been an enormous tragedy last week, and a slap in the face of those dedicated founding fathers and mothers, if the Board had not voted to file suit against this attempted ham-fisted political intrusion into the governance of the system.

The textbook case that many still point to—including Steve Barrett, a former chair of the Board of Regents, in a recent searing editorial urging the Board to challenge HB 102—is an incident in 1919 that involved a bright, ambitious, economist, Louis Levine. It occurred at the height of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company’s unfettered economic and political power and at the outset of the notorious “Red Scare” that swept across the nation in the wake of World War I. Those century-old events serve as a primer in what can go terribly wrong when political power attempts to subvert time-honored academic freedom.

Some background. Levine was a brilliant, Ivy League-trained, young economist hired by the University of Montana in 1916. He was also a Russian Jewish immigrant. Both the president of the University, E.O. Sisson, and Edward Elliott, the Chancellor of the university system, sensed a golden opportunity to showcase the talented economist and encouraged Levine to undertake a scholarly analysis of the taxation system in Montana. There was grassroots movement afoot to revise Montana’s tax structure which had been hard baked into the 1889 State constitution by the mining interests that shaped that document. An ulterior hope was that Levine’s work might help uncover new revenue streams for the university system’s chronically woeful funding.

Levine then undertook a painstaking, dispassionate, scholarly study of taxation rates on the various industries and entities in the Treasure State. I’ll spare the mundane details, but it revealed what most Montanans already intuitively knew: the Anaconda Company, by far the state’s wealthiest business operating in the nation’s richest ore-producing district, paid Montana a pittance on its net proceeds while agriculture, property owners, and small business shouldered the lion’s share of the state’s tax burden.

In 1918, as Levine fine-tuned his research, Chancellor Elliott promoted the young economist around the state to various groups and organizations. Levine shared his work in a series of articles in the then-progressive newspaper, The Daily Missoulian, with the State Tax Commission, and at a high-profile tax conference organized by the farmers and ranchers in Lewistown. Until then, the mild-mannered academic had flown under the radar but by now lawyers and executives of the Anaconda Company had gotten wind of his findings. Anaconda-backed speakers lined up to excoriate him at the Lewistown conference and within several weeks the company’s chief legal counsel demanded Elliott and the state Board of Education undertake an investigation of Levine for “espousing socialism” in his research and teachings at the University of Montana. After all, how could anyone trust anything coming from a closet Bolshevik? (As a sidebar, in the 1910s the chancellor then oversaw the university system, serving at the pleasure of the state Board of Education, a body completely beholden to the governor and the legislature). Chancellor Elliott demurred until he had more evidence.

Meanwhile, by early 1919 Levine had finalized his material for scholarly publication. But suddenly Chancellor Elliott, who earlier had been so full-throated in his promotion of Levine’s work and had enthusiastically encouraged the University of Montana press to publish it, lost his nerve. The Anaconda Company and the governor had gotten to him, threatening to cut the system’s appropriation. Elliott abruptly ordered Levine to shelve his research. Levine, undeterred, and encouraged by several of the nation’s leading economists, found a willing New York publisher. The result was a small pamphlet, “The Taxation of Mines in Montana.” Elliott promptly suspended Levine for “insubordination” justifying that to publish his work would be inimical to the welfare of Montana higher education. To his credit, UM’s President, Edward Sisson, stood by his beleaguered professor, but was ultimately powerless to circumvent Elliott’s action.

The case made national headlines and had the salutary effect of ensuring that thousands more would read an otherwise technical, scholarly economic treatise replete with descriptions of property valuation formulas, analysis of gross versus net proceeds, and small-print graphs detailing the overall (inequitable) tax structure of Montana. Earlier State Board of Education provisions required that the university appoint university faculty to form a “Committee on Service” to investigate and report back to the board and make recommendations. Not surprisingly, the committee—comprised of some of U of M’s most distinguished faculty– offered a lengthy, blistering report to the Board. The actions of the chancellor had “made the University stand in the minds of people throughout the United States as a horrible example of narrow-mindedness, bigotry, and intolerance” from which the “University has suffered irreparable harm.” Furthermore, the actions “weaken the morale of the faculty and students, destroy the confidence of the people of the state in the intellectual integrity of their educational institutions, and subvert all sound principles of educational policy concerning freedom of thought and expression.”

The committee recommended Levine’s reinstatement. Despite the governor’s opposition—his strings tightly tethered to Anaconda–Elliott and the Board bowed to public and national opinion and reinstated Levine, though admitting that they were right in the first place in suspending him. Within a few months, however, Levine had had enough and left the state to pursue a lengthy and distinguished academic and publishing career, ultimately leading to an appointment as a senior economic advisor to the United Nations after World War II.

For all of us in higher education in Montana, the Levine case and the heavy-handedness of the Anaconda Company remains firmly embedded in the background, hard-wired into our professional academic DNA. It remains a sobering, cautionary tale. The company’s periodic chicanery was, in some measure, why the 100 citizen-strong 1972 Constitutional Convention created the Board of Regents, to act as a buffer, as a shield against the naked abuse of corporate-backed power in a small state, power that for so long had dominated—and perverted–the state’s political culture. Imagine what the future might hold if HB 102 had been allowed to stand, unchecked. It isn’t much of a stretch to envision funding held hostage perhaps to the elimination of undesirable curriculum.

This wouldn’t have led us simply down a gradual slippery slope, but rather put us in a freefall into a dark abyss.

The people of Montana need a strong, independent Montana Board of Regents that oversees an equally robust, independent Montana University system. Critical inquiry, teaching, research, publication, no matter how inconvenient or uncomfortable it might make its citizenry, is vital in a free society. Yes, HB 102 is about guns and where and who can carry them, but that’s a wholly separate and secondary subject at this point; it is also about something much more, something much larger. Last week, perhaps unwittingly, the members of the Board of Regents acknowledged our past, with an eye toward our future. They should be applauded for their stance.

Keith Edgerton is professor of history and the chairman of the history department at Montana State University-Billings.