JEFFERSON CITY — Presidents of Missouri's universities fielded questions Wednesday about how their respective schools would cope with proposed reductions to the state's higher education budget.
The House Education Appropriations Committee heard testimony about the financial state of Missouri's universities. Some university presidents said the governor's proposed 7 percent cut to higher education would put a strain on their budgets.
"The cuts present a significant challenge," said Robert Vartabedian, president of Missouri Western State University.
But representatives from other institutions said they had braced for the budget reductions and the proposed cuts won't create a substantial problem.
"We have been preparing for this for the past two years," said Paul Kincaid, Missouri State University chief of staff.
Lawmakers submitted questions to the universities prior to the hearing. University presidents were asked what measures they were taking to reduce their operating budgets and how they would be affected by budget cuts of up to 15 percent.
All of the universities, who were represented at the hearing, plan to increase tuition for the upcoming academic year.
Representatives from the University of Missouri System were vocal about the need for state funds for other things, such as faculty retention and research.
Steve Owens, interim president of the UM System, said UM's low faculty salaries and increased faculty mobility across the nation could cause a decrease in the quality of education.
"Our best and brightest might be moving on," he said.
Owens also pointed out that the UM System has conducted $371 million in research using funds from outside their appropriations. He said this same research benefits Missouri's economic development.
Many lawmakers acknowledged that the proposed budget cuts would be necessary, but Rep. Mary Still, D-Columbia, said she thinks there are other options.
"There are many avenues for raising revenue, and a cigarette tax would be one of the easiest," Still said.
Still said she believes the state's first priority is education and increasing the general revenue could mean reduced cuts for higher education.
Representatives of Missouri's universities said they have taken steps to reduce their budgets. A spokesperson for Missouri Southern State University said they have fewer administrators now than they did 12 years ago, when enrollment was higher.
Other institutions have put building repairs and projects on hold. Carolyn Mahoney, Lincoln University president, said a 7 percent budget cut would cause facility maintenance to take a backseat.
Owens said the UM System has been able to do "more with less" with declining appropriations from the state.
A primary source of budget reductions for the universities has been the elimination of academic degree programs.
Scholarship programs have also taken a hit. Lincoln University has cut its scholarship budget by 19 percent, Mahoney said.
Despite efforts to reduce operating budgets, the UM System will raise its tuition 5.5 percent, to an average of $8,400 per student (not including room and board). Missouri's other public universities face the same fate.