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In an op-ed of Dec. 30, Sen. Llew Jones advocates a “private medical school” to address Montana’s physician crisis. True, Montana has a shortage of general practitioners, as does the nation, and as does the world. But inviting a parody of an academic institution into the state is not the logical answer. Jones gratuitously conflates “private,” as in Harvard and Yale, with “for profit,” as in what he’s really talking about.

I would support a private medical school in Montana also, if the school of medicine at Harvard, or Yale, or Washington University in St. Louis, Stanford or Duke wished to put a satellite in our state. But they do not. The senator is referring to schools that are established to make a profit. Such operations have earned a tarnished reputation in the United States. Their mission is not conferring quality education, but returning maximum profit to their investors.

For-profits are an outgrowth of the misguided American notion that everything should be “run like a business,” and of our collective awe for free-market economics. This mentality enabled conservatives in Congress to amend federal student loan laws to allow eligibility for students at for-profit operations. Thus, the combination of high tuition, low admission standards, lack of academic standards, and, in the case of for-profit medical schools, a struggle to gain acceptance to U.S. residency programs, result in few employment options and much greater debt upon graduation than that of graduates of standard American medical schools accredited by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education -- something most of the for-profit operations lack.

In addition, we need to consider the politics at play in the current situation. The offer of foundation property near or abutting the campus of Montana State University to a prospective for-profit school of osteopathic medicine is a transparent reach for future advantage. Perhaps whatever is located there will eventually become a real medical school, and -- voila! -- it is already on campus and so becomes a part of MSU. It would then consume enormous state resources, diverted from the rest of public higher education in Montana.

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For a long time there has been a quip coursing through higher education: every university president dreads having either a big-time football program or a medical school. The president soon loses control of either, and each consumes endless resources. We should bear this in mind also as we plan for the future. And let’s not stoop to embracing for-profit higher education. It is a matter of reputation.

Dr. Pettit was Montana’s first Commissioner of Higher Education, after which he served as a university president in Texas, Illinois and Pennsylvania. Now retired, he lives in Helena.

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