GEORGE KENNEDY: Times are tough for Carnahan, higher education

Thursday, August 26, 2010 | 1:31 p.m. CDT; updated 12:13 p.m. CDT, Friday, August 27, 2010

Other than the Missouri State Fair and peach season, August doesn’t have much to recommend it. Back from an ill-deserved break and catching up with the news, I see that this year is no exception. The Cardinals and the economy aren’t the only things we have to worry about.

The first troubling item that comes to mind is an especially unpleasant surprise. I’m talking about Robin Carnahan’s campaign for the United States Senate. She’s sounding like she has forgotten the advice of Missouri’s most successful politician, Harry Truman. Mr. Truman once observed that voters, given a choice between a Republican and a Democrat acting like a Republican, are likely to choose the real thing.


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Ms. Carnahan reminded me of that a few days ago, when she announced that she supports extension of the Bush tax cuts for the top 3 percent of earners, those making at least $200,000 a year. Of course, Roy Blunt, her Republican opponent, had already said the same thing. Our president, who as you may recall is a Democrat, wants to extend the cuts for the bottom 97 percent and let the fat cats pay back some of what they’ve gained in the decade of disproportionate gains for the rich and economic stagnation for most of us.

Ms. Carnahan has also seemed disturbingly Republican-like in her positions on the stimulus (which in fact has accomplished just what Mr. Obama promised) and a couple of other major issues. We can only assume she’s following the polls and not her heritage. Her father ran as a real Democrat when he defeated a stronger Republican in his own Senate race. We liked Mel so much we elected him even after he was killed in a plane crash.

A second bit of bad news, one that wasn’t so surprising, came from our current governor, another super-cautious Democrat. He pointed out that budget woes are going to require another round of cuts next year to higher education. He said we’ll have to be more efficient. If he said anything about being “world class,” I missed it. I hope he didn’t, because that’s not the direction we’re headed.

Here at MU, the biggest-ever freshman class of more than 6,000 brings our total enrollment to a new record of 32,009, an increase of 35 percent since 2001. That would be good news except for this: The regular (tenured and tenure-track) faculty has only increased by 4.7 percent over the decade, to 1,239 in the fall of 2009. That’s the most recent number available.

Who’s teaching all these new students, you ask? Well, for one thing, the student-faculty ratio has increased from 15-1 to 17-1. For another, the growth in faculty numbers is in the nonregulars, up 56 percent over the decade. That’s more efficient, but is it better?

Times are tough, and they’re likely to get tougher for future university employees. Three weeks ago, President Forsee announced that administrators are studying a change in the pension system for future hires, from defined benefits to defined contributions. His e-mail listed advantages of such a change, but it neglected to mention that defined contribution pensions shift the burdens of investment and the risk of loss from the institution to the individual.

The change is only being studied, but the president’s language pointed pretty clearly to the outcome. That will be more efficient, too.

The picture isn’t any prettier in our public schools, where fewer teachers are handling more students and the tax is going up to compensate for declining state support.

But let’s not despair. August is nearly over. We’ve got a holiday coming up, and football, and the prospect of cooler weather. And peaches are still in season.

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


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