COLUMBIA — The frustrations of some MU faculty members over a shortage in state funding and a proposed plan to increase faculty salaries by freezing teaching positions were heard at a special meeting Thursday afternoon.
About 250 faculty members attended the meeting in which educators questioned the MU’s Compete Missouri plan, a $7 million proposal to make faculty salaries competitive with peer institutions. About $3.8 million of the plan’s funding is expected to come from salaries currently allotted to unfilled faculty slots, said MU Provost Brian Foster.
Victoria Johnson, an associate professor of sociology, said the loss of about 60 positions will diminish the ability of professors to reach individual students within lecture classes. She said it will also keep educators from being able to teach more specialized courses with smaller class sizes. Although she said she understands the difficulties the administration has encountered in funding — Missouri ranks 47th in per-capita state spending on higher education — she said MU’s mission should not be ignored.
“When we feel a budget decision will have an impact that harms the teaching mission, then we feel compelled to come forward,” she said.
MU's financial troubles date to a succession of state budget cuts that began in 2001, when it received $193 million from lawmakers. By 2004, that contribution declined to $168.3 million. Even with recent increases averaging 4 percent, the state share is still below its 2001 levels.
Nationwide, Missouri ranks 46th in percentage change in taxed appropriations to higher education in the past decade. Among a group of 34 peers in the Association of American Universities, the school is ranked next-to-last in faculty pay, ahead of only the University of Oregon.
Some faculty spoke in favor of the plan.
MU Chancellor Brady Deaton said he saw nothing at the meeting to suggest a change of direction regarding the plan. Deaton said he, his staff and the faculty council will work to ensure the faculty's concerns are taken into account.
“It is the most effective step to take to ensure the future quality of this university, to provide the kind of instructional needs, research needs and outreach needs the state is expecting of us,” Deaton said.
Deaton said that in light of increased budget pressure and political and economical fluctuations, MU needs to work on its own to take action.
“We know we can’t stand still,” he said. “The university has to keep pace with the changing needs of students and faculty.”
Deaton said the plan would be the first time a significant step has been taken to achieve MU’s desired goal of increased faculty salaries.
“We believe that ensuring competitive salaries for our faculty is the best way of ensuring the quality of our institution,” he said.
Eddie Adelstein, an associate professor of pathology and animal sciences, said he believes MU’s problems are not only fiscal in nature. He said MU is lacking positive morale.
“My impression is that the spirit of the institution is not good here, and that a lot of people are quite uncomfortable,” Adelstein said. “And that is more of a problem than the money.”
The future of MU was also questioned by a student at the meeting. Sophomore Lauren Hibler, who works with the campus outreach student recruitment team and has been the recipient of multiple research fellowships, asked how the cutting of faculty positions would help her tell future students that MU is the best place for them.
“A university is founded to educate students and to improve people’s overall learning,” Hibler said. “The focus needs to be back on the basic education, and getting back to what it was founded for ... I feel like we are backtracking.”
Sudarshan Loyalka, a curator’s professor in nuclear engineering who has taught for 41 years at MU, said he thinks the Compete Missouri plan will do more damage than any plan proposed since his arrival.
“I don’t believe that the plan will really look at merit sufficiently,” he said. “It seems to me that it will be based on institutional politics, and that’s a disconnect between policy and practice.”
Deaton said he was “exhilarated” by the turnout of faculty at the meeting, and that the attendance was the best he could remember since becoming chancellor in 2004. He said he understands there will be divergent opinions on the issues and wants to present opportunities for open dialogue.
Deaton said he hopes to continue to see good turnouts for future faculty meetings. He said the meeting’s success is a sign that the spirit and vigor of MU is still strong.
“Their attendance, passion and dialogue speaks wonders for the world-class quality of education that the faculty contribute to the university,” he said.
Johnson said she thought the meeting was a positive development and that the open discussion was a much-needed step. She said, however, that she still has concerns about the plan’s long-term impact.
She said that she and other faculty members are hoping to hold a series of symposiums in the fall to debate the funding issue.
When students return in the fall, Missouri expects to see record enrollment. Their tuition should help alleviate some of MU’s financial challenges, Foster said.
Combined with an expected $2 million surplus made possible in part by the Compete Missouri plan, faculty can expect to be eligible for pay hikes of 5.5 percent to 7 percent next year, he said.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.