MU Provost Brian Foster went home sick Wednesday, so he missed the first budget forum scheduled by his staff.
Good call. After sitting through two hours of unremittingly grim explanation, futile attempts to lighten the mood and fruitless suggestions by faculty listeners, I felt a little queasy myself.
Provost Foster's deputy, Ken Dean, noted that Wednesday was new Budget Director Rhonda Gibler's 51st day on the job, succeeding the legendary Tim Rooney. It was her first crack at the thankless annual chore of showing and telling just how bad our university's fiscal situation is, and why it's not likely to get any better any time soon.
She came across, I thought, as candid, well informed, good humored and way too kind to both our masters in the legislature and their putative masters, our fellow citizens of Missouri.
The numbers tell only part of the story.
Our university is a $2 billion business (run, Ken Dean commented, as no rational business would be, with almost no control over its costs and artificial limits to its revenue). Of that total, about $537 million is the general operating budget. The rest is made up of such "enterprise" funds as hospitals and physicians, athletics and student housing, all of which are more or less self-sustaining.
The legislature provides this year less than one-third of that general operating budget. Tuition provides 62 percent. For purposes of historical interest, remember that back in 1990, the state appropriation covered 70 percent of the budget.
Since the high point of state support in 2001, Dr. Gibler pointed out, state support has declined by 12 percent while enrollment has grown by 47 percent and the Consumer Price Index has gone up 32 percent.
That means, she and Deputy Provost Dean observed, that the campus has come to count on enrollment growth to balance the budget. And that growth is slowing, both because of fewer high school graduates in Missouri and the limitations of campus capacity.
Budget planners are counting on only about half the increase in enrollment next year. This year's freshman class included the highest percentage ever of out-of-state students, 36 percent. Those, of course, are the high-dollar newcomers. They pay roughly double the in-state average of $9,272 in tuition and fees. (That's below both the SEC average ($10,727) and the average of our peers in the AAU ($10,904).
Looking ahead, the picture is no rosier. Once she's factored in expected cost increases and the expectation that there'll be no more money from the state, and set a goal of 3 percent for salary increases, Dr. Gibler's chart shows a shortfall next year of $16.3 million. So departments that have long since cut away their fiscal fat will once again have to engage in the self-mutilation known as "reallocation."
That leads me where Ken Dean and Rhonda Gibler, for good and sufficient reason, didn't want to go. Who's to blame?
Both budgeters insisted that MU has a good reputation in Jefferson City. They pointed out that the Republican-led legislature actually gave us more money last year than Gov. Nixon proposed. The legislature just doesn't have the money to do any better, they said.
But I ask, whose fault is that? The reason Missouri ranks 44th among states in support for higher education per capita is that our political leaders have an ideological resistance to the taxes necessary to sustain state services -- not only education -- at anything close to an adequate level.
The citizenry seems content. As Dr. Gibler understated, "Missourians aren't excited about taxing themselves." The fate of the proposed tobacco tax last year stands as supporting evidence.
I've said jokingly that we Missourians are poor and ignorant and proud of it. It's increasingly clear that the joke's on us.
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.