COLUMBIA — For nearly two decades, Missouri Southern State University has brought the wider world to an otherwise isolated corner of southwest Missouri, thanks to an international mission enshrined in state law.
But a recent effort by Missouri Southern President Bruce Speck and some state lawmakers to remove mention of that global mission from Missouri law is raising hackles among some professors and alumni at the Joplin school.
Opponents of the move said they were caught by surprise when Missouri lawmakers amended a larger education bill in the state Senate to remove the designation of Missouri Southern as a "statewide institution of international or global education." State Sen. David Pearce of Warrensburg said he introduced the amendment at the request of Speck and other university leaders. The bill was unanimously approved by the Missouri Senate and now moves to the House for consideration.
"The international mission probably did not suit the overall mission of the university," said Pearce, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
Those comments worry Chad Stebbins, a communications professor who directs the school's Institute of International Studies. Stebbins said he first learned of the proposal through a school graduate who works as a Jefferson City lobbyist.
"Not every student is able to study abroad. So we want to bring the world to campus," he said.
"If you're a student in Kansas City or St. Louis, you're exposed to many different cultures just by virtue of living in a city," he added. "Students in southwest Missouri are most isolated. They need opportunities for greater exposure."
The school has offered "themed" semesters for the past 15 years, focusing on a different foreign country with guest speakers, cultural performances and other programs. Missouri Southern also had added an international studies major, broadened foreign language courses and set up a scholarship fund to defray the costs of study abroad participants since the mission statement was added to state law in 1995.
A university spokeswoman said Speck was not available Tuesday morning for an interview. In a recent guest column in The Joplin Globe, he said the current statutory language misrepresents the school's broader mission. He also tried to assuage concern about the move.
"Our mission cannot be confined or defined by the term 'international,'" he wrote. "Removing Missouri Southern's mission from state statute does not change our mission ... A change in statute will not affect funding or change our status as a statewide university, and it will have no impact on the day-to-day operation of Missouri Southern. "
The groundswell of opposition, including an online petition effort started by alumni, has apparently prompted a more measured approach to the possible change. Heidi Kolkmeyer, legislative director for Sen. Ron Richard, said Tuesday that the Joplin Republican plans to ask his House colleagues to kill the amendment so the proposed change can be further vetted.
"We've made the decision, based upon some reaction, that we really need to talk about this," said Pat Lipira, the school's interim vice president for academic affairs. "It's the right thing to do."
Pearce noted that just fewer than half of the state's 13 public colleges and universities have missions explicitly outlined in Missouri law. That group includes Truman State University in Kirksville, which is dedicated to the liberal arts, and Linn State Technical College, with a vocational training mission. Yet only Missouri Southern's mission is targeted for removal.
The international focus at Missouri Southern was an outgrowth of former Missouri Gov. John Ashcroft's call in 1989 for a state university to formally embrace that perspective. Gov. Mel Carnahan signed the change into law six years later.
Stebbins said he hopes Speck and others behind the change will abandon their decision, especially in light of the growing importance of preparing students to live and work in a global economy.
"We know the international mission has affected many students," he said. "It has transformed the lives of some, and broadened the lives of many."