Cuts won't produce 'world-class education'

Thursday, October 15, 2009 | 3:49 p.m. CDT; updated 8:39 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 15, 2009

Chancellor Brady Deaton has invited all MU faculty to a meeting Wednesday afternoon. I intend to go, though I don’t expect to come out of it feeling good. My guess is that he’ll tell us something closely approximating this:

“I am pleased to report that it is currently unlikely we will see holdbacks from the state during FY ’10. However, the outlook for FY ’11 is much more uncertain, so caution suggests that we continue to monitor and curtail expenses where possible…. Earlier this month the CBHE (Coordinating Board for Higher Education) recommended to the Governor a flat budget for higher education for FY ’11. With increasing costs and tuition levels unknown at this point, FY ’11 will be a difficult year, and FY ’12 appears even more uncertain.”

That’s a pretty good guess, I think, because the paragraph above is quoted from a memo Brady sent Sept. 24 to deans, department chairs and other dignitaries. (In the spirit of transparency, I must reveal that it required no great feat of investigative reporting to get my hands on the memo. It was forwarded this week to journalism faculty.)

The memo goes on to make what strikes me as a dubious assertion. At the least, as we academics like to say, it’s problematic. Here it is: “Even in the face of economic difficulties, students continue to seek us out for a world-class education — and we will continue to provide that to them.” Notice that the concluding pledge is underlined for emphasis. It’s that way in the memo. I have to wonder about both the claim and the promise.

Do we really provide “a world-class education"? Well, sure, in the sense that we’re part of the world. But the compound adjective seems to imply that dear old Mizzou belongs in the class of the world’s most distinguished institutions. As a loyal alumnus and longtime employee, I see that as more an aspiration than a description.

Just to take one small and not completely reliable bit of evidence, our university slipped again this year in the U.S. News and World Report rankings. Since 2004, we’ve slid from 73 to 102. And that’s a national, not a world-wide, competition. Say what you will about the shortcomings of a journalistic rating, it’s one the university used to brag about. Our worst score came in the category of “financial resources.” (For an excellent report and analysis of the latest ranking, read this story from Vox Magazine for Sept. 17.)

We’d all agree, I expect, that the most important element in a world-class education is the faculty. So it wasn’t encouraging, either, to read that of the 68 faculty members hired last year, fewer than half were in regular tenure-track positions. In other words, we’re increasingly teaching the record-breaking number of students with temporary, part-time or underqualified instructors. Is that world-class?

Looking ahead, as Brady’s memo suggests, the picture gets murkier and grimmer. A couple of weeks ago, Betsy Rodriguez, the University of Missouri System vice president for human resources, told another faculty gathering that our salaries remain near the bottom of our peer institutions.

The Mizzou Weekly account of that session reported that she listed the consequences of noncompetitive salaries as including “high turnover, taking longer to fill vacant positions, having to settle sometimes for second-or third-tier job candidates, and lower morale and productivity.” Every 1-percent salary increase, system-wide, costs about $8 million, she said.

Doing more with less has always struck me as an oxymoronic phrase. Without major revenue increases, however, a commitment to higher salaries necessarily implies major reductions elsewhere. That’s a classic, if not a world-class, quandary. The university really has only three main sources of revenue, none of them ripe for significant increases any time soon. The state is broke, even rich donors are getting poorer, and tuition is capped by state law.

Further reallocation looms. Can we cut our way to world-class status?

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

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