Count our blessings more than our MU budget

Thursday, November 27, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CST

As we digest our turkey and count our blessings, here's something for which nearly all of us can give thanks: We're not responsible for drafting next year's university budget.

I joined about 20 faculty members on Nov. 21 to hear Provost Brian Foster and Budget Director Tim Rooney, who do have that responsibility, explain some of the challenges they face. It was almost enough to ruin my appetite.

Just to give you an idea of the scale of their problems, here are a few numbers Rooney showed us. MU's budget for the current year is about $1.7 billion. Most of that is tied up in what administrators call auxiliary enterprises, such as the hospital ($578 million), the bookstore ($54 million), athletics ($47 million) and KOMU ($10 million). Those are the parts of the institution that generate their own revenue and pay their own bills.

The "core of the university" — the general operating budget that includes classroom expenses and faculty and staff salaries — this year comes to $474 million. Of that, tuition and fees provide about $254 million and the legislative appropriation $189 million. The rest comes from such sources as the overhead skimmed from grants and contracts.

If it still strikes you as a little odd that the state doesn't really provide even half the budget for the state's flagship campus, this should make you feel even worse: In 2001, the legislative appropriation was $193 million. If the legislature had merely kept up with inflation, this year's appropriation would have been $242 million. Since 2001, the gap between what the campus should have received just to match inflation and what it actually has received totals more than $300 million.

That was history. The future looks uncertain but grim. Provost Foster, a man who measures his words, described the economy as "incredibly volatile." The news insists on reminding us that the volatility is mainly of the downward sort.

A few months ago, when budget planning for Fiscal Year 2010 began, the forecast was for state revenue to grow by 3.8 percent. At present, the reality is negative 2 percent, and the expectation is for further decline.

Based on the forecast that now seems but a pleasant dream, the university drafted a budget request for next year that asked for $75 million more than this year. (Included in that number, by the way, was the $2 million the legislature failed to provide this year as its share of the pot to raise faculty salaries by 7 percent. In fact, Rooney pointed out, the campus came up with both its half of that raise money and the half promised but not delivered by the state.)

Rooney played his computer keyboard much as the organist at a funeral plays a dirge. As he talked us through the changing budget assumptions, the numbers on the big screen at the front of the room changed from black to red. When he got to the part where the assumption becomes a 5 percent cut in the state appropriation, I thought I heard sniffling from some of my fellow mourners.

Be thankful, Columbians, that we're not in California, where the state colleges are forced to cut enrollment. Be thankful we're not in Nevada, where the projection is that state support of universities will decline by half over the next two years.

Be thankful. But be prepared.

AND ANOTHER THING: You may have seen in Wednesday's paper the rebuttal from the Boy Governor's chief of staff to last week's column. If you want to judge for yourself who's falsely stating what, I hope you'll go to last week's column and follow the embedded links back to the newspaper reports that revealed both the Blunt administration's barrage of assertions and the e-mail contents that proved them untrue.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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