GEORGE KENNEDY: MU lags behind in research university peer group

Friday, November 2, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

Taking a break from obsessing over the races for U.S. Senate and president, I joined a few dozen colleagues Tuesday afternoon at the fall meeting of the university faculty. Attendance at those semiannual general meetings is never good, but the information that’s shared is always valuable and often depressing. Tuesday was no exception.

Chancellor Brady Deaton began with his usual points of pride. We have 34,748 students this year, he said, with the highest minority enrollment, the best test scores and the highest rates of retention and graduation ever. The retention and graduation rates are both well above the national averages. Enrollment is up by 8,624 from 10 years ago.

(A bit later in the proceedings, budget officer Tim Rooney supplied his standard deflator. Since 2001, he pointed out, enrollment has increased by 47 percent while state support has decreased by 12 percent.)

Even Chancellor Deaton wasn’t completely his usual upbeat self. While he pointed with pride to MU’s continued membership in the most elite group of research universities, the Association of American Universities, he emphasized that we’re lagging behind that peer group.

The AAU has only 59 members in the United States and two in Canada, 34 of them public. We’re near the bottom of the pack in three of the four most important measures that determine eligibility for membership and not much better in the fourth. We’re below the 10th percentile in federal research dollars, memberships in the National Academies of Science and Medicine, and the number of times other scholars cite our work.

We’ve got to do better, he said. He didn’t suggest that we’re in danger of being evicted from this high-prestige and high-dollar neighborhood, but he did remind us that the University of Nebraska was voted out not long ago.

He wants the campus to increase the number of graduate students, who of course do a lot of the grunt work behind the scenes of research productivity. He also wants to increase the number of tenure-track faculty, a number that has been pretty static even as the numbers of undergraduates, and the non-tenure-track faculty who teach them has mushroomed.

By comparison to other AAU universities, our faculty is strongly skewed to the low end of experience and salary. Of our tenure-track faculty, 34 percent are assistant professors, 34 percent associate professors and 32 percent full professors. The average percentages among our peers are, respectively 24 percent, 27 percent and 49 percent.

More and higher-ranked faculty, of course, cost money. Tim Rooney told us that the university system is requesting about $85 million more for general operations from next year’s legislature. We’ll see how that plays out.

Mr. Rooney also said that Proposition B, the cigarette tax increase, would yield $40 to $50 million a year for the system. Much of that would go toward increasing the School of Medicine’s enrollment of future physicians by one-third, in a new partnership with two southwest Missouri hospitals. You’ve noticed, I’m sure, that President Tim Wolfe and Chancellor Deaton have plunged into the campaign to pass that tax.

When the chancellor introduced Tom Hiles, the new campus fundraiser-in- chief, he said private dollars are no substitute for public support. He must have meant that they shouldn’t be. Increasingly, they are.

Mr. Hiles reported that the capital campaign that ended in 2008 had a final take of $1.038 billion, one of only 20 such campaigns by public universities to top the billion-dollar level. That money has produced, among other things, 1,500 endowed scholarships and 91 endowed faculty chairs.

Our university now has a total endowment of more than $600 million, he said. That sounds pretty good until you realize that it leaves us, again, near the bottom of the AAU. For comparison, the University of Florida’s endowment is $1.3 billion. Penn State’s is $1.7 billion.

So the next big campaign will be focused mainly on increasing our endowment. If you wonder why that’s so important, see Tim Rooney’s figures, above.

The next campaign won’t go public for another year or more, Mr. Hiles said. He declined to reveal its goal, saying that won’t be decided for a while. It will be more than $1 billion, though, and will last seven years. During this planning phase, the counting has already started. So far, he said, the total committed is $168 million.

Reflecting on the meeting, I can’t help concluding that, while it may be true as the Bible says that the love of money is the root of all evil, it’s also true that the lack of money is the root of its own evils. And the pursuit of money never ends.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.

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Jimmy Bearfield November 2, 2012 | 11:26 a.m.

"the non-tenure-track faculty who teach them has mushroomed."

The J school has more NTT than TT faculty, and it seems to be doing fine in terms of reputation and outside funding.

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