Fear of free markets inspires opposition to private med. school in Montana

A former university president and Commissioner of Higher Education is arguing that Montana should reject a proposed private medical school because the free market is too risky.

“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,” Dr. Lawrence Pettit—whose career included positions as a political science professor, university president, and a run in the Democratic primary for Montana’s U.S. House seat—wrote in an op-ed Sunday for the Helena Independent Record.

The proposal was first mooted by Republican State Sen. Llew Jones in a December 30 op-ed in the Independent Record, in which he first outlines the facts surrounding Montana’s shortage of General Practitioners before announcing that “a private entity is considering establishing a Montana school that would graduate approximately 125 doctors annually,” many of whom he predicts would remain in Montana to set up practices.

Seeking to alleviate potential concerns about the project, Jones points out that it would involve an investment of more than $100 million in the state, and says fears that a private school is somehow bad are unfounded, noting that “Carroll College, Harvard, Yale, etc. are examples of private schools.”

Pettit counters that while he would support addressing the state’s physician shortage with a private medical school if it were established by a major university such as Harvard or Stanford, he believes that Jones is actually referring to a for-profit medical school, which Pettit says he opposes because the mission of such institutions “is not conferring quality education, but returning maximum profit to their investors.”

Yet Pettit also expresses concerns that the for-profit school could one day be absorbed by the public university system, intimating that this would also be bad for the state.

“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,” he muses. “It would then consume enormous state resources, diverted from the rest of public higher education in Montana.”

Jones anticipated that such uncertainty and fears of a “turf war” would inspire opposition to the effort, but contends that “we need to replace these fears with the facts before we lose this great opportunity to another state.

“It could be decades before another private organization considers investing over $100 million in Montana, let alone for the creation of a much needed Montana Medical School,” he warns, saying, “by then it will be too late to effectively address the physician crisis.”

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