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.