Gary Forsee calls for more state support on higher education

Sunday, January 31, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST

COLUMBIA — University of Missouri system President Gary Forsee publicly challenged state lawmakers and Gov. Jay Nixon to boost financial support of higher education, calling Friday for revival of a bond issue to finance campus building projects.

The former Sprint Nextel CEO cited near-record low interest rates and a favorable financial market in his annual State of the University speech but told university curators the "window will likely close this year."

Forsee's remarks at the University of Missouri-Kansas City represented some of his most forceful about the need for increased public financing of higher education since taking charge of the four-campus system nearly two years ago.

Missouri lawmakers last year considered a plan to spend several hundred million dollars on college construction and other state building needs. That bond proposal was approved by the House but stalled in the Senate. A similar proposal is back before the Legislature.

"To the extent that people thought we were on the sidelines, I didn't want that to be the case," Forsee said after speech.

House Democrat Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, called Forsee's leadership "a breath of fresh air."

"He's been very direct with the Legislature and the people of Missouri about things that have needed to be said for a long time," said Kelly, sponsor of the $800 million bond proposal. If passed by lawmakers, the proposed constitutional amendment would appear on the November ballot.

Kelly said Forsee is "in the process of changing the university from a lamb into a lion, politically — or maybe I should say a Tiger."

University leaders have identified $3 billion worth of needed building repairs and construction, Forsee said, adding that the bond proposal would only "scratch the surface."

The issue has simmered in the Capitol for several years.

In 2007, lawmakers approved former Gov. Matt Blunt's plan to use $350 million from the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority to support campus building projects. But Nixon reversed course in early 2009 after MOHELA was unable to make all of its scheduled payments toward the plan.

The projects included $31.2 million toward replacement of the 70-year-old Ellis Fischel Cancer Center in Columbia.

Forsee also unveiled a new three-year, $5 million Enterprise Investment Program for startup companies created to commercialize university research.


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