UM curators brace themselves for tough 2009

Friday, December 12, 2008 | 5:50 p.m. CST

ST. LOUIS — Cheryl Walker is a bit reluctant — her term as curator expires next month, and she won’t be in such a powerful position to lobby on behalf of the University of Missouri System.

"I will not be around to pull up my sleeves and go about the business of our university," said Walker, the curator from St. Louis. Don Walsworth of Marceline and Marion Cairns of Webster Groves will also see their terms expire Jan. 1.

But in a nod to System President Gary Forsee and the six remaining curators, Walker said, "We have the right people to lead us through what might be the most difficult financial time we have seen in the history of the university.”

The UM System Board of Curators prepared itself at Friday's meeting in St. Louis for what curators repeatedly said could be a difficult year.

Public colleges and universities were told Dec. 2 in a memo from the state Department of Higher Education that they could see budget cuts of 15, 20 or 25 percent in the coming fiscal year.

As a result, administrators have been asked to prepare statements describing how their campuses would operate under each budget scenario. These statements are due to the Department of Higher Education by Dec. 18.

But Forsee said next week’s response won’t be a final plan. It won’t be specific beyond explaining what it would mean to each of the four campuses if each potential budget were to happen, he said.

He said the system’s response will become more definitive when the General Assembly can say early next year how much it expects to cut budgets.

“Think of this as a Rubik’s cube,” Forsee said. “First, we have to know what that number will be and, from that, start to make certain assumptions.”

Forsee plans to make use of a recently completed study by Fleishman-Hillard that gauges Missourians’ attitudes toward higher education.

The study, which was spearheaded by outgoing curator Cairns, found that almost three-fourths of Missouri voters support investing in higher education, even if it means raising taxes. And respondents said higher education is the third most important issue, after the economy and health care, for state government to address.

Forsee said he would like to distribute the results of the study to the General Assembly. He has also submitted a letter to Missouri’s legislators and governor-elect that asks them to consider higher education a high priority for construction projects.

President-elect Barack Obama promised last weekend to create a large-scale public works construction program. In response, Forsee has identified 73 construction projects across the system that could be started within the next 90 days and finished within two years.

“These projects would create local jobs while also providing a better environment in which to educate, discover new knowledge through research, provide service to our citizens and stimulate a new economy with an educated workforce for the jobs of tomorrow,” Forsee wrote in the letter.

The board also approved a revised faculty grievance policy, which will add an administrator to the initial body that gathers and evaluates information related to a complaint. The MU Faculty Council approved the revised policy in October.

As Walker’s term as board chair draws to a close, Bo Fraser of Columbia, who currently serves as vice chairman, was elected the 2009 board chairman Friday.

Fraser serves on the boards for Boone County National Bank, of which he was chairman and CEO for more than 20 years, and Benedictine College, where he received his bachelor's degree in business in 1964.

In his first speech as chairman-elect, Fraser admitted the coming financial situation “will probably trump all other issues,” but quality of education will remain a high priority.

Judith Haggard of Kennett was elected vice chair. Haggard is a graduate of MU and the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She is currently a family nurse practitioner at the Southeast Missouri Health Network in Kennett.

Gov.-elect Jay Nixon will appoint the three new curators, Walker said. The board’s next meeting is Feb. 5-6 at MU.

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