History of budget cuts at MU stretches to university's beginning

Tuesday, December 23, 2008 | 7:05 p.m. CST; updated 8:41 p.m. CST, Tuesday, December 23, 2008

COLUMBIA — Slashing the operating budget at MU is nothing new. 

Just ask former professor David Leuthold.

“We certainly have had budget cuts before, and they are always difficult,” said Leuthold, a retired professor of political science. “The question of whether this is the most difficult ever — I don’t know.”

Leuthold, who began teaching at MU in 1963, recalls the early 1980s as a period marked by budget cuts and high inflation.

The cost of living, used to calculate inflation, rose by 9 percent in 1980 and by 10 percent in 1981,  according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

“The average faculty member lost 25 percent of his or her purchasing power,” Leuthold said. “Because of the inflation, people were not getting salary increases.”

He said MU cut faculty indirectly by offering early retirement, shifting positions between departments or not filling positions at all. After 29 years at MU, Leuthold took advantage of an early retirement opportunity in 1992.

In 1867, legislators voted to give MU its first appropriation — $10,000 to build a home for the new president.

The next 30 years passed with little notice. The General Assembly of 1883 gave MU one of the largest appropriations to date, and funding remained favorable during the remainder of the century.

When the Great Depression hit in 1929, MU took perhaps the hardest financial hit in its history.

Walter Williams, previously the dean of the School of Journalism, assumed the presidency in 1930, a year many faculty members resigned to take jobs where salaries were higher and opportunity for advancement was greater.

In March 1931, the General Assembly sent a bill to then-Gov. Henry Caulfield, requesting $3.3 million for MU.

MU never saw the full amount. Caulfield vetoed $79,000 for construction and operations and withheld $351,000 until he could be certain the funds were in the treasury. The money never materialized.

Eight months later, Caulfield withheld an additional $204,000, followed weeks later by a $246,000 decrease in appropriations.

MU received about 26 percent less from the state than anticipated. The Board of Curators met in December to discuss the options, ultimately eliminating the overtime rate for hourly employees and reducing janitorial services.

In 1932, the financial crisis deepened. Williams requested that his salary, $12,500 at the time, be reduced by 20 percent. The board later announced that faculty salaries would be cut. Ten percent was withheld from faculty paychecks during the last three months of 1932.

Students and campus facilities didn’t escape the crisis either. In June 1932, students began paying a matriculation fee of $10, and all fees were raised by 30 percent. Money requested by administrators for construction projects never came.

After construction began on the south wing of Memorial Union in November 1930, for example, only excavation and first-floor walls were completed before funds were gone. The wing remained unfinished for decades.

In 1933, the new governor, Guy B. Park, appropriated $1.8 million for MU — two-thirds of what the university received two years earlier. In June, the Board of Curators reduced faculty salaries by up to 20 percent. About 200 names were eventually eliminated from the university payroll.

In October, the General Assembly passed legislation to create new sources of revenue through taxes and bond issues, marking the beginning of a turnaround.

The federal Public Works Administration, created that year by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, also provided relief. Following Williams’ death in 1935, MU President Frederick A. Middlebush successfully applied for federal funds through the administration.

Construction on campus started immediately, and within a year, seven projects — including the west wing of Ellis Library and a new building for the College of Education — were nearly complete.

In 1937, MU received about $4 million from the state, enough to raise faculty salaries to pre-Depression levels. And by the end of the 1930s, MU was enjoying moderate prosperity, indicated by increasing enrollment, larger appropriations from the state and a flurry of new construction projects.

Leuthold doesn’t envy MU administrators for decisions they will have to make in the current economic climate.

He said it might be difficult for administrators to cut the budget and preserve quality, which Chancellor Brady Deaton and UM System President Gary Forsee have repeatedly said they plan to do.

“When you’re forced to cut back, that’s inevitably going to affect quality in a variety of ways,” Leuthold said, citing the likelihood of larger class sizes  and early retirement options for faculty who may not be replaced.

“It’s extremely difficult for university administrators at a time like this because there are no good choices,” he said. “If it were obvious to save money in particular ways, they would have long since done that.”

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