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MU's mostly sobering financial outlook has some bright spots

Thursday, October 22, 2009 | 3:44 p.m. CDT; updated 8:28 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 22, 2009

After last week’s column appeared, Gary Forsee sent me an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education by Mark Yudof, president of the University of California system.

You might recall that I had ventured the opinion that our university’s leaders don’t do themselves or the rest of us any favors when they misuse the term “world-class” as a description of the institution rather than the lofty aspiration it really is.

So I guessed that President Forsee wanted me to take away from President Yudof’s work his insistence that, “We don’t surrender to our greatest enemy: the easy allure of mediocrity.”

I, of course, hastened to assure the boss that mediocrity holds no allure for me.

Then I went, along with a handful of colleagues, to Wednesday’s general faculty meeting. Campus budget director Tim Rooney painted his usual depressing picture of the university’s finances. He made me realize that, from the standpoint of fiscal resources, mediocrity itself may be an aspiration.

“Mediocre” comes, my American Heritage dictionary tells me, from the Latin “medius,” meaning “middle,” and “ocris,” meaning “rugged mountains.” Financially, at least, we’re far from the middle, and the mountains look rugged indeed.

In fiscal year 2009, the most recent year for which comparisons are available, Missouri ranked 45th in state appropriations for higher education per capita. Nebraska was 10th, Kansas 12th and Arkansas 15th. Over the 20-year period beginning in 1990, the share of the university budget provided by the legislature has slipped from 70 percent to 39 percent.

The high-water mark for state support came in 2001, when the university received $193 million. This year, it received $189 million. Mr. Rooney pointed out that if the appropriation had just kept up with inflation and enrollment increases, this year’s would have been $319 million.

Despite that reality — and despite the projection that the next two years are likely to be worse than this year in state support — I didn’t notice anybody leaving the auditorium in tears. That was probably because of the relentlessly upbeat comments by the chancellor and the provost that bookended the budget.

It’s a classic principle of rhetoric that you put the points you really want people to remember at the beginning or the end of your film or article. The principle would seem to apply as well to a meeting.

Chancellor Brady Deaton began with a recitation of the institution’s strengths. This year, he reminded us, we have record enrollment, record research productivity and record private funding. Both the diversity and the quality of the student body are higher than ever. He even found a fiscal bright note.

At a recent gathering of our peer institutions, we were “the envy of the crop,” he practically chortled. Our standstill budget and avoidance of layoffs or furloughs outshone the others. (President Yudof’s essay reveals that the University of California, which really is — or was — world-class, is experiencing both furloughs and layoffs and plans a 32 percent tuition increase over two years.)

The campus has, the chancellor said, a goal this year of $100 million in private gifts. In the first quarter of the fiscal year, such gifts are up 2 percent. The Big 12 average for the quarter is a negative 12 percent.

After the budget downer, Provost Brian Foster took the stage to discuss the university’s “strategic assets,” which are now labeled “Mizzou Advantage.”

“We want to increase the impact of what we do,” he said. “And we want to increase the stature of MU.”

We’ll do that, he enthused, by focusing money and effort on developing “a set of dynamic collaborative networks” across and beyond the campus in the five subject areas identified as current or potential strengths.

It was, all in all, a kind of schizophrenic session. Ben Wieder captured the tone and substance well in the first paragraph of Thursday’s Missourian report. “MU administrators presented a mix of sobering facts and optimistic plans,” he wrote.

I know I felt both sobered and hopeful.

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

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Comments

Mike Martin October 23, 2009 | 12:02 p.m.

George:

I find both of your columns wise reminders of something I worry about more and more: What's becoming of our administrative and power culture, not only at MU, but nationwide.

This "cheerleading" you reference is a troubling symptom of what I consider the Great Corrupter: skyrocketing salaries and employment packages for senior level administrators in the wake of declines for everyone else. It encourages a culture of secrecy, duplicity, and disingenuous-ness at the top.

Who are the people addressing you at this meeting? You weren't up there. Eddie Adelstein wasn't up there. Top level honchos were, spinning a situation you accurately described in your first column.

I received this email from an MU faculty member yesterday. It goes to this whole idea of a kind of "looting class," people in positions of power who simply cannot afford to be truthful, lest they face a mass, internal rebellion.

EMAIL from yesterday

Mike:

I send this email with a certain trepidation from an email account that cannot easily be traced back to me. I am an MU alum, parent and faculty member. I take issue with this paragraph from the October 22 Columbia Daily Tribune article on page 12A, Financial outlook could mean higher tuition:

"MU's tuition - $245.60 per credit hour for resident undergraduates - remained flat this year in a deal between public universities and Gov. Jay Nixon. Nixon vowed to not withhold money for higher education if universities agreed to not raise tuition."

What a scam! There was a deal all right - a wink and a nod among curators, administrators and the governor's office because they created a technicality two years ago that allowed them to publicly brag about not raising tuition.

But it has not been discussed in the press as far as I'm aware. I've been biting my tongue for two years but seeing this article in the Tribune made me decide to point this out to someone.

My sense is that you are the only person who might actually dig into it.

Starting two years ago, supplemental per-semester-hour fees were quietly added to student bills while tuition "remained flat."

The original concept was that certain courses had unusual expenses associated with them that justified an added fee, over and above the ordinary credit-hour fee. Such fees required approval by the chancellor's office, but they quickly spread across colleges and got tacked on to all courses within each of several colleges.

Supplemental fees have become a cash cow for some departments. As a faculty member, I acknowledge that without them, many departments would be operating in the red from budget shortfalls.

But as a parent and alum, I am furious about the duplicity of MU administration! Undergraduate engineering students have actually seen their fees increase by a whopping 23%, when you add the $54.50 per credit hour "Additional Course Fee" to base tuition of $245.60 per credit hour.

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