Analysis: Missouri's universities give mix reviews to 2008 legislature

Sunday, June 1, 2008 | 4:25 p.m. CDT; updated 9:43 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Final grades for the 2008 legislative session are in among Missouri’s university chancellors and presidents. The verdict: a decidedly mixed report card.

The University of Missouri System, which educates 72 percent of students enrolled in the state’s four-year colleges, scored several important victories, notably a 4.2 percent increase in the fiscal year 2009 operating budget.

The system’s St. Louis campus earned a one-time boost of $2.4 million to counter historical funding discrepancies. And for the first time since 2000, the state’s public campuses collected sorely needed money for a host of building projects — without having to sell off assets from the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority, as was the case last year.

Still, there was plenty of disappointment to go around, judging from comments made by university leaders after a meeting last week at a Lincoln University with Rep. Kenny Hulshof. He was the last of three candidates for governor to meet with college chancellors and presidents in recent weeks.

“Part of the concern is that when these broad-based issues end up in the General Assembly, they have their own ideas,” said UM System President Gary Forsee, suggesting that perhaps “the leadership in the Capitol doesn’t trust us.”

Forsee and others singled out a $38 million proposal to train more health care workers that had the almost-unprecedented support of each of the state’s public colleges and universities, including community colleges.

Gov. Matt Blunt recommended a one-third allotment of that request, but House budget leaders scrapped the entire proposal, citing a shaky economy and a reluctance to saddle future lawmakers with a program that will require more money down the road.

“There was a point where the House speaker said we’re going to put money into scholarships and that will help them go into that field,” said Gordon Lamb, who as interim UM System president spearheaded the initiative and remains Forsee’s executive vice president.

“We can give all the scholarships in the world, but we need more faculty. We need more classes,” he said.

Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, said that current higher education leaders continue paying for the sins of their predecessors, noting that many lawmakers still remember when the chancellors and presidents weren’t so chummy with each other.

He added that college funding requests have been hindered by other issues related to academia, from the continued dispute over embryonic stem cell research to concerns about intellectual diversity on campuses that many conservative lawmakers consider bastions of liberalism.

“There’s really been an ideological bent against higher education,” said Graham, a member of the Senate Education Committee.

With Blunt unexpectedly stepping down, higher education boosters are turning their sights to his three potential successors: Hulshof, state Treasurer Sarah Steelman or Attorney General Jay Nixon.

University leaders hailed Blunt’s support in recent years, but noted that the three-year increase in operating budgets first established in 2007 comes on the heels of years of declining state support.

The financial troubles on campus date to a succession of state budget cuts that began in 2001, when the university received $193 million from lawmakers. By 2004, that contribution had declined to $168.3 million. Even with the recent increases, the state share is still below its 2001 levels.

Nationwide, Missouri ranks 47th in per-capita state spending on higher education. 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.

“I don’t think any of us think that this is going to raise Missouri to the level that it needs to be at in order to have a really vital economy,” said Barbara Dixon, president of Truman State University. “One of the frustrations is, we get hopeful that there is going to be a real investment in higher ed and then it doesn’t quite come through.”

At MU, the flagship campus for UM, worried faculty members note how the school’s lagging salaries have led plenty of star professors to leave for greener pastures.

In May, hundreds of professors filled a lecture hall to express their displeasure to Chancellor Brady Deaton about a three-year, $7 million effort that aims to make faculty salaries more competitive with those offered at other public research universities — a pay increase that comes in part from the elimination of 60 positions from academic units.

A request by the university system for $3.55 million to boost faculty pay was among the proposals that didn’t even win Blunt’s support, let alone that of lawmakers.

“You have to make a commitment to invest in higher education in order to receive the yield that you ultimately expect,” said Michael Nietzel, president of Missouri State University. “Because if you look at the potential for job growth and for leadership, this state is no different than any other state. It is going to require advanced levels of education.”

At the same time, Nietzel and his colleagues realize that higher ed boosters are just one of many constituencies lawmakers must deal with.

“The legislature wants to do what is fiscally responsible for this state,” he said. “And they’re not going to be able to appropriate revenue we don’t have.”

“They are trying to do the best they can,” Nietzel added. “It’s up to us — and particularly to business and industry in Missouri — to take the message forward.”

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