All Commentary
Thursday, March 1, 1990

Academic Freedom at a Public University

A great deal of attention is paid to academic freedom. Among the benefits of such freedom, it is claimed, is that the free dissemination of information will allow better informed decisions to be made. The following story points out that public funding of academia creates certain subtle and not-so-subtle biases that are inconsistent with academic freedom. Given the continuing expansion of public involvement in academia, it seems important that these biases be openly acknowledged and discussed While the following is a personal account of what happened to me several years ago when I was affiliated with Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana, it illustrates what I think are not unusual events at public universities.

Constitutional Initiative 27, which would have abolished property taxes in Montana, obtained ballot status in June 1986. Immediately it brought forth horror stories that it would lead to the virtual elimination of state and local government in Montana. The State Superintendent of Public Schools said that all elementary schools in the state would have to be shut down if the initiative passed. The typical numbers released assumed that public schools would bear the entire burden of the revenue reduction. The Governor and other state officials made similar claims, and it looked to me, and everyone else that I knew, that the initiative was dead before it even got a fair hearing.

Not surprisingly, the facts were quite different from what public officials were claiming. In 1984, Montana received 19.5 percent of total revenue for state and local governments from the property tax. In Montana, total state and local government revenue equaled 29.46 percent of personal income as compared with a national average of 20.5 percent. Had the property tax been eliminated in 1984, state and local government treasuries still would have had $2 billion to spend – 23.7 percent of personal income in the state. Thirty-five other states did quite well spending less than 23.7 percent of personal income. In fact, this 23.7 percent figure overestimated the cut because income tax revenues would increase when people and corporations lost their property tax deductions.

The Governor’s office released reams of numbers claiming such ridiculous things as Montana being the lowest or second lowest taxed state in the nation. They would get such numbers by assuming that Montana’s farmers and businesses could “export” 100 percent of their taxes to other states by raising prices to others, but that businesses in other states bore the entire burden of the taxes that they faced. In other words, they subtracted such taxes as business taxes, taxes borne by farmers, some property taxes, and other revenue sources from the total for Montana but not from the totals for other states. Needless to say, that greatly reduced the relative total for Montana. The other big claim the Governor’s office made was that property taxes amounted to almost 60 percent of all government revenue in Montana. What they really meant was “general tax revenue,” which doesn’t even include all tax revenue let alone sources like income from fees and federal government transfers.

I could go on, but I think that this makes the general point – government officials were being dishonest, and no one was challenging their numbers. Initially, I planned only to write an op-ed piece that appeared on July 13,1986, in the Great Falls Tribune and The Montana Standard (Butte). Until then I had no contact with the four sisters who were primarily responsible for putting the initiative on the ballot. After Naomi Powell, one of the four, got in touch with me, I agreed to stop off in Helena and talk to Frank Adams, a former newspaperman who was writing the ballot statement for the initiative, and then to meet with the sisters and some of their supporters in the small Montana town of Corvallis.

I met them, as I recall, on July 26. 1 quickly became aware why the initiative was having so many problems. The press had been relentlessly attacking the sisters as “John Birchers” and members of secretive groups, and further accused the sisters of refusing to answer the press’s questions. What was happening was that when a member of the press would contact them with questions, the sisters would reply that they would investigate and send out a press release on the subject. Needless to say, the press wanted answers on the spot.

The sisters ranged in age from late 50s to late 60s and had retired with their husbands to the Bitterroot Valley. Living on fixed incomes, they had found themselves in a squeeze as the cost of living, especially their property taxes, had risen. These sisters were hardly wealthy – the furniture in Naomi’s well-kept house was quite old and worn, and their windows had cracks that were mended with tape. The sisters had spent a great deal of their fife savings trying to get the initiative on the ballot, and had gone around the state sleeping in sleeping bags while they collected the signatures for the initiative. The initiative, while not perfect, was pretty good and, at least to me, represented Americans seeing a problem and doing their best to solve it. However, getting the more than 50,000 signatures was one thing, defending the initiative in public was another.

By philosophy I am a limited-government type, but I think that it was the unfairness of the campaign that really got me to help out. The fact that Naomi had my op-ed piece taped to her refrigerator door, and told me that she would read it every time people attacked them and things weren’t going well, probably didn’t hurt either.

Initially, I said that they could refer “number-type questions” from the press to me. I quickly found that all inquiries from the press were being routed in my direction, and that I had become the unofficial (and then official) spokesperson for the initiative. I viewed my primary role as just getting the correct numbers out to the press, although I did end up talking to quite a few legislators and other individuals about the benefits of lowering taxes. One week in early August, I was on the state-wide Montana Television News Network on four different evenings.

Opponents Take Aim

Newspaper editorials began attacking my involvement from the first appearance of the op-ed piece. By late August, it came to my attention that the Commissioner of Political Practices had almost filed felony charges against me because of a law forbidding state employees from engaging in political campaigns. I had no idea that such a law even existed. Fortunately, I wasn’t on state salary at the time because I was planning to be on leave at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, California, for the coming academic year. When the commissioner’s office was informed of this fact, the proposed charges were dropped. (Of course, no one thought of filing charges against all the other currently employed academics and other state employees working against the initiative.) During August I also began to hear of complaints from the Montana State University administration concerning my involvement with the ballot initiative. On several occasions I was told by the chairman of the Agricultural Economics and Economics Department that the dean had made it clear to him that he didn’t want me to speak out on its impact.

Before I left for Hoover I was heavily involved in getting several prominent Montana political figures to endorse the initiative. Frank Adams (since the middle of August an official spokesperson for the initiative) and I had also put out quite a few press releases on its impact.

Even though I left Montana in late August, I agreed to continue to speak with the press and to return to the state in September and October to participate in debates. I first returned to Montana on September 19 to participate in a state-wide television debate on September 22. When I returned home the Agricultural Economics and Economics Department was in a state of panic. Several members of the department screamed at me that I was destroying the department because the university was going to punish them for my involvement in the initiative. I learned from the department chairman that he had been getting telephone calls from the president of the university and the dean of the School of Agriculture threatening to hurt the department if they did not get me to “shut up.” Apparently, they had told the chairman that the department had been very well treated financially in the past, and that since the department didn’t seem to appreciate it, the university should look into moving some of the department’s money to other departments that would appreciate it.

I ended up spending a couple of hours in the chairman’s office on the 22nd listening to him describe the threats that my actions were posing to the department. I was told many times that while what I was saying was correct, it was best not to say anything on what was such a sensitive topic as the tax cutting initiative. While my name continued to appear in newspapers through the press releases the campaign issued, I decided very reluctantly to give in and not participate in the televised debate that night. We were able to get a local businessman to fill in for me. Incidentally, his opponent was a political science professor from the University of Montana.

During the next couple of weeks, I was deeply involved in talking to the press, as the Governor’s administration was really going after the initiative. The Department of Revenue Director and part of his staff were working full-time attacking it. They appeared on television and gave frequent newspaper interviews.

I returned to Montana on October 9 to participate in a debate in Billings with a couple of state senators. When I arrived in Bozeman the next morning, I was confronted by an almost-panicked department chairman who recounted a telephone call he had received from the dean that morning. He wanted to know if I really had said that public school teachers are “overpaid.” When I told him that I had, he told me how incredibly upset the dean was and that he was not sure what the consequences were going to be.

Given the extreme pressure placed on the department, I had not allowed myself to schedule any additional appearances in the state despite the offers of many groups to pay my way. (I wouldn’t have minded a couple of expense-paid trips home to visit my wife in Bozeman.)

Constitutional Initiative 27, which would have abolished property taxes in Montana, was defeated on November 4, receiving 46 percent of the vote. However, Initiative 105, designed to freeze property taxes at 1986 levels, passed by a comfortable margin.

Unfortunately, things didn’t quiet down after the campaign ended. When the department evaluations took place after the beginning of 1987, 1 was in for a few more surprises. I received the lowest ranking in 4he department in the category of “outreach,” which deals with communicating with the general nonacademic community I usually have very little desire to do well in such a ranking, since I am normally much more concerned about getting academic articles published. On a 0-4 scale, with 0 being the lowest, I received the only zero. Given that many people had told me that I had become the best known economist in the state, I was a little surprised. However, since I value doing research and teaching much more highly than “outreach,” I normally wouldn’t have cared except that the ranking obviously was made to punish me for my ballot-initiative activity. I was told that my involvement in Constitutional Initiative 27 would not count because it was political, which was fine with me, but I still had written several other op-ed pieces that had appeared around the country, and Forbes and Regulation magazines ran articles which had mentioned my research. This low rating was made in part so as to reduce my overall evaluation enough to keep me from getting a raise. As it turned out, this was unnecessary since no raises were given that year.

Interestingly, faculty involvement in political activity is hardly uncommon on campus. In the spring of 1987, when the state legislature was debating university funding, professors canceled their classes so that students could take a bus trip to the state capital and demonstrate for more funds. The administration “unofficially” encouraged this activity. In another instance, a member of the Physics Department, who for six years served as possibly the most free-market member of the state legislature, had his university salary frozen during the entire period despite the fact that his state office required only 90 days work once every two years. Needless to say, how the university treated you depended on which side of the issues you were on.

The final straw fell when I visited the Agricultural Economics and Economics Department in April 1987 and was told that the method by which the entire department was being ranked relative to other departments had been changed. This ranking is important since it helps to determine how the university’s money will be divided among the departments on campus. In the past the Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics consistently had been ranked as the top department in the School of Agriculture. The dean reportedly told the chairman that they would go back to the old method if the department members, especially me, behaved themselves in the future (this was repeated to both my wife and me by the chairman). The administration was particularly concerned over reports that there was going to be a new initiative on the ballot in 1988. The chairman asked me to promise not to make any more statements to the press even if they contacted me. I informed him that I would not make such a promise, in part because if I felt someone were being dishonest I would feel duty bound to point that out, if asked.

I suppose it is not too surprising, but one thing I learned firsthand is how strongly people who receive their income from taxes will fight to protect that income. While administrators at Montana State University will constantly give their opinions on the importance of academic freedom, they will not let something as trivial as academic freedom stand in the way of their doing what they perceive necessary to protect their jobs. This really convinced me about the inconsistency between publicly provided education and academic freedom. Even when people do not act as overtly as they did at Montana State University at silencing dissent, the fact that professors and administrators receive their income from taxes cannot help but color their opinions.

At the time of the original publication, Professor Lott taught in The John E. Anderson Graduate School of Management at UCLA.