It's a sign of the times that the interim president of the University of Missouri System began his "state of the university" message with a roundup of cost-saving measures.
The system's four campuses saved $222 million over the past three years through steps such as fewer workers, deferred maintenance and energy savings, Steve Owens told the UM SystemBoard of Curators during its most recent meeting in Kansas City. The system eliminated 29 degree programs. Its schools spend 21 percent less on administrative expenses than comparable public institutions around the nation.
At the same time, all four campuses are serving increasing numbers of students. MU enrolled 10 percent more freshmen in 2011 than the year before.
"Last year was a remarkably eventful and productive year," Owens said. "We achieved what we set out to do, and we continued doing more with less."
Missouri's public colleges and universities are good at that. State leaders have underfunded the schools for more than a decade. Adjusted for inflation, Missouri's funding for the operating budget of the UM System today is at 1984 levels.
Out of necessity, and because of good leadership and smart thinking, Missouri's leading universities are among the most lean and efficient in the nation.
But Gov. Jay Nixon's budget for next year calls for a devastating 12.5 percent cut in higher education funding. The governor lectured the schools in his State of the State address to "run smarter, more efficient operations."
That talk is a transparent attempt to deflect the blame for inevitable tuition increases. The schools should continue searching for ways to save money. But the irresponsible player is the state of Missouri.
Naturally, tuition increases are back on the table. The curators are mulling increases ranging from 9 percent at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla to 3 percent at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Other public colleges and universities are calculating how much more they can reasonably ask students to pay.
The answer: Not very much. Tuition at many Missouri universities is higher than what families pay in states like Kansas. Students take on unacceptably high debt loads to go to school. There is no way Missouri's universities can ask students to make up for the level of cuts that Nixon is proposing.
Nor can they continue to cut their way to balanced budgets. Leaders estimate nearly half the buildings in the UM System need repairs. Staff and faculty at most publicly supported schools have gone years without raises. The starting salary for a doctorate-level chemistry professor at highly regarded Truman State University in Kirksville is $41,000.
It's past time for Missouri to stop gutting its colleges and universities. Republican and Democratic legislators have expressed concern about Nixon’s proposed cuts. They should find a way to moderate them.
If Nixon and lawmakers are serious about Missouri having "an educated workforce to compete in the global economy," as they repeatedly proclaim, they will get behind long-term funding solutions for higher education.
An essential first step would be loud and clear support for a ballot initiative to raise Missouri's lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax to 90 cents a pack.
The initiative, sponsored by a coalition of health and education groups, earmarks 30 percent of the anticipated $283 million a year in revenues for public colleges and universities, and 50 percent for elementary and secondary schools.
It would be a refreshing shift to see the state's leaders — especially Nixon — move from blaming the schools for the state’s higher education crisis to endorsing a way out of it.
Copyright Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.