HELENA — History repeated itself last week as some new groups have plastered a bull's eye on the Montana university system.

A dozen conservative groups urged Montanans to send the U-system a message right in the pocketbook for a host of perceived sins. They implored them to vote Nov. 4 against the 6-mill property tax levy that helps fund the university system for the next decade. That is certainly their right.

The levy will raise $13 million a year out of the system's $200 million student- supported budget. It's also an important vote of confidence in the university system.

Social and cultural battles involving the university system are nothing new.

Line up, take a ticket, grab a chair. Montana's venerable old university system has faced these outside threats throughout much of its history.

The Anaconda Copper Mining Co. and its political allies forced the firing of UM economics Professor Louis Levine in 1919. He had written a book that concluded that mining taxes here were "inequitably low," as one account said.

Various groups from the American Legion to the John Birch Society have targeted professors for what they considered radical, unpatriotic views. A few governors even picked up that cudgel.

Through the years, assorted legislators have taken their potshots at the system over the years, usually at the liberal arts university in Missoula. Among their many targets were: Professor Leslie Fiedler in the 1950s and early 1960s; a controversial editor of the Montana Kaimin, UM's student newspaper in the mid-1960s; student anti-Vietnam war activity in the late 1960s; and the most recent whipping boy, UM's Environmental Sciences program.

Even the new co-ed dormitories at Montana State University in Bozeman drew the wrath of one state senator in the mid-1970s.

That's precisely why drafters of the 1972 Montana Constitution gave the Board of Regents the constitutional autonomy to oversee the university system and to isolate it from political pressures.

The 6-mill levy is no stranger to controversy either.

In Missoula in 1968, the lieutenant colonel who headed UM's Army ROTC program waged war against passage of the 6-mill levy that year.

The colonel was angry because his daughter, taking a summer school English course at UM that year, was assigned to read an essay called "The Student as Nigger." It contained a number of obscenities and vulgarities.

This screed was written by a California professor for an underground newspaper in Los Angeles. It picked up some steam as some English professors around the country assigned it to students, apparently for shock value or help ignite the revolution.

As critiques of college education went in the 1960s, the essay didn't seem all that provocative then. But it did contain those dirty words, which shocked some. You can find it on the Internet, and it certainly hasn't stood up well to the test of time.

Nonetheless, the colonel and his allies, Montanans for Constitutional Action, set out to make sure every Montana voter had a chance to read "The Student as Nigger." They sent out 114,000 copies of an expurgated version of the full essay to voters and parents of U-system students. They plugged in euphemisms for the offending words.

As he always did in those tumultuous times, UM President Robert Pantzer provided calm leadership. He stood up firmly for academic freedom, which won him applause on campus but drew criticism in other quarters.

Montana voters in 1968 ultimately passed the 6-mill levy by 59 percent to 41 percent. It won in 53 counties, and lost in only three — including Missoula County, which surprised many people.

Then there's the rest of the story.

A year later in October 1969, we at the Montana Kaimin received an anonymous envelope from Salt Lake City. It contained a recent clipping from the Salt Lake Tribune with a headline that went something like: "Vice Raid Nabs 15." The colonel, retired and still living in Missoula, had been among those arrested in Salt Lake. He had pleaded guilty to offering a meter maid disguised as a hooker $5 for a sex act. He paid a $100 fine and received a suspended jail sentence.

I don't think he was ever heard from again on public issues.

Johnson is chief of the Lee Newspapers State Bureau in Helena. He may be reached at (800) 525-4920 or 443-4920. His e-mail address is chuck.johnson@lee.net.

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