COLUMN: Education commissioner gives Missouri a crucial warning

Thursday, February 4, 2010 | 11:54 a.m. CST; updated 10:38 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 12, 2010

I’ve never been quite sure what the Coordinating Board for Higher Education actually does. It doesn’t seem to have much real authority, and its coordinating efforts for 35 years certainly haven’t prevented the mushrooming growth of colleges at nearly every crossroads in the state.

However, this week has made clear one role of Robert Stein, the coordinating board’s commissioner. He’s our official Cassandra. (In case your recollection of Greek mythology is as shaky as mine, I’ll remind you that Cassandra was the prophetess of gloom and doom. Unlike the ancient Greeks, we’d do well to take Mr. Stein seriously.)

The Missourian’s Ben Wieder reported Tuesday on Mr. Stein’s letter of warning to higher education officials. The letter itself turned up the next day on the Missourian’s Web site. It included this:

“The facts are clear that, absent some unforeseen intervention or unprecedented economic turnaround, the state’s fiscal situation will mean reduced state appropriations to public higher education beginning in fiscal year 2011, deepening in fiscal year 2012, and likely persisting as a new lowered base for several years beyond.”

In the two weeks since he wrote, the fiscal picture has gotten even worse. Nobody has said so publicly yet, but to me it’s looking increasingly unlikely that the legislature will be able to honor the deal struck between Gov. Nixon and President Forsee for next year – fiscal 2011, in budget-speak. That deal calls for another tuition freeze in exchange for a cut to the core budget of only 5.2 percent. Bad as it was, that’s looking more and more like a pleasant fantasy.

Beyond 2011, Mr. Stein pointed out, things get really ugly. For instance, he calculated that if higher education has to absorb 10 percent of the state budget cuts that seem inevitable for fiscal 2012 (“an optimistic assumption given past practice”) that would be another 10 percent on top of the planned 5 percent for next year. All this, as he didn’t need to say, from a budget that was already too small.

His “potential cost savings ideas” range from the undesirable to the impossible. The latter, as you’d expect, include those most likely to yield big savings. Close a college? Make some into branches of others? Remove state funding and thereby privatize some? Eliminate all athletic programs?

Rep. Chris Kelly’s response rings true: “Every single person that you talk to about Missouri higher education would say there are too many institutions. Not one single person would tell you their institution ought to lose anything.”

Remember the furor when Elson Floyd suggested bringing Northwest Missouri State into the UM system? I thought then that he might be seeking a national champion football team or hoping to take advantage of Northwest’s pioneering use of pig manure as fuel for the campus power plant. Now it’s clear that he was just ahead of his time.

 We’ve already adopted one of Mr. Stein’s ideas by requiring employees to begin contributing to the pension program. And that planned survey of which benefits employees value most might better be worded as asking which they would most like to keep.

The unpalatable suggestions that our university might have to swallow include increasing class sizes, increasing faculty workloads to permit reducing faculty numbers and cutting some academic programs. Mr. Stein didn’t mention layoffs or furloughs, but it’s hard not to think of them.

Near the end of his letter, Mr. Stein displays a gift for ominous understatement. “With constant pressure from a variety of constituents to expand offerings, produce more graduates and accommodate more demands from business and industry, shrinking out of financial necessity could be a very painful process.”

Cassandra was fated to be disbelieved. Robert Stein, I’m afraid, is fated to be correct.

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

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