General Assembly opens with call for higher education reform, emphasis on economic development

Wednesday, January 7, 2009 | 7:56 p.m. CST; updated 2:11 p.m. CST, Thursday, January 22, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — The 95th Missouri General Assembly began Wednesday with a proposal that could endanger the continuing authority of the UM System Board of Curators by bringing all state universities under one board.

In his opening address, Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, spoke about tough economic times in Missouri and repeatedly referenced the need to reform higher education in the state.

Shields called the higher education system "disorganized," and said he would like to see the governing model altered to resemble other states' systems.

Missouri's Coordinating Board for Higher Education,  which has been in place since 1972, handles state budget requests from all state universities.

But, the UM System is exempted from the board's authority. Its administration is handled solely by the Board of Curators, which, like the coordinating board, is made up of a member from each congressional district.

"At the very least in Missouri, we have to increase the power of the coordinating board," Shields said.

Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, agreed with Shields' assertion. Kelly said he supports combining all state universities under a board of curators because it would make state universities more efficient. However, he said he does not think it will ever be done because some schools would oppose it.

In 1971, a citizens' commission to restructure state government supported uniting all universities under one governing board. Several state institutions, including the UM System, fought against the effort on the claim that it would weaken competition and cause some schools to lose their regional identity.

The legislature created the Coordinating Board for Higher Education in 1972, but gave it little actual power. Most Missouri universities continue to have a governing board.

Sen. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, agreed with Kelly that the current system is inefficient.

"You wouldn't run a business like that, have different locations all over doing the same thing," he said.

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