The headline at the top of the Missourian's front page Thursday captured the substance of the general faculty meeting on Wednesday afternoon. "MU chancellor gives few details about budget cuts," it read.
The details that were given by Budget Director Tim Rooney were sufficiently depressing. The number I focused on was this: $58.6 million. That is, Mr. Rooney showed us, the worst-case projected deficit for the campus next year if the state appropriation is cut by 25 percent.
Chancellor Brady Deaton did reveal that, so far, he has received more than 400 suggestions from faculty, staff and students for coping with the crisis. Already, there's been one concrete result. Campus thermostats have been turned down from 72 to 70. Next summer, they'll be turned up from 74 to 76. Projected savings for the year: $120,000. Cutting another $58.48 million won't be that easy. The chancellor invited more suggestions.
Here's mine: Don't try. Don't slash the budget by 25 or even 15 percent. The fat has long since been trimmed. This institution is lean, even emaciated.
Another relevant number: 78.5 percent. That's how much of the campus budget goes to salaries, wages and benefits this year. So when the chancellor said he has "no anticipation" of layoffs or cuts in salaries and benefits, he might better have said that there's no hope of achieving such major cuts without going deep into the personnel budget.
What to do instead, you ask? The only other choice is to raise revenue. That means raising tuition. The math is simple enough for even a journalist to attempt.
We currently have 30,200 students, and administrators expect another significant increase in enrollment next year. (Something you might whisper in the legislature's collective ear: MU enrollment has increased by 25 percent since 2001. Back then, our state appropriation was $193 million. This year it's $189 million. But I digress.)
So, if tuition were to be raised by an average of $1,500 per semester, the additional revenue from 30,000 students would be roughly $90 million for the year. This is journalist's math, so I'm not calculating part-time students or, on the other hand, summer school.
But wait, you say; we have lots of students who can't pay at the current rate. That's true. Christian Basi in the MU News Bureau got me the numbers. This year 11,972 students are receiving need-based financial aid that averages $3,206 per student.
So, set aside half that extra tuition revenue for financial aid. That would allow more aid for those students who need help, while those able to pay the full bill would pay more. Yes, you're right. This is the private university model, minus their big endowments. But isn't that the direction we're headed?
The net revenue gain then would be about $45 million. Now remove from Mr. Rooney's worksheet the raises that would be hard to justify in a recession anyway, and the gap closes by another $12 million or so. Recapture half of the $2.3 million that's now going to the athletics department, and we're there. (Don't forget the $120,000 we're saving by temperature control.)
I told you the math is pretty simple. The politics will be more complicated. In the first place, there's Senate Bill 389. The curators can't raise tuition by more than the inflation rate — currently about 1 percent, Mr. Rooney pointed out — unless the Coordinating Board for Higher Education approves. So there's a selling job to be done.
Fortunately, we have in Gary Forsee, the university's Salesman in Chief, a guy who thinks big. How big? He's urging inclusion of the university's infrastructure needs in the stimulus package promised by President-to-be Barack Obama. He also has commissioned a public opinion survey, the results of which suggest a willingness by Missourians to support more funding of higher education.
He can sell to the Coordinating Board and the legislature the university's impact on not only the culture but the economy of the state. Both are greater than is generally recognized. And he might want to quote Robert Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities, the organization of the nation's top 60 universities. Our university joined 100 years ago. Mr. Berdahl came to celebrate that centennial and spoke of the increasing world-wide investment in higher education.
"In this context, it would be utterly foolhardy to move in the opposite direction and allow the excellence we have built in our public research universities to decline," he said in his address. "While it may take several decades to build a world-class university, it takes much less time to destroy one by neglect."
If the legislature won't support the university, and the record shows that it won't, the university must be allowed to support itself. Of course, foolhardy neglect is another option.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.