JEFFERSON CITY — Efforts to rename Southwest Missouri State University as the more important-sounding Missouri State University have failed for two decades in the state legislature.
But a collision of election year politics and financial shortfalls may have finally created the ideal circumstances for the Springfield school to get its new name.
“I’m optimistic,” Sen. Norma Champion, R-Springfield, declared last week despite the Senate’s failure to reach a vote after nearly eight hours of debate over two days. “We think we’ve got more than the majority.”
Standing in the way is Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, a master talker who claims to have stacks of dilatory and damaging amendments. But perhaps most indicative of the bill’s growing support is that Jacob appears to be standing alone — surrounded as if at Custer’s Last Stand, as one senator put it.
Although the University of Missouri, and specifically its flagship Columbia campus, has not traditionally taken an official position against the Southwest Missouri State name change, there has long been an assumption among legislators that the university did not like it for fear that it would detract from its unique status. That alone often carried great weight in debate.
In the Senate, at least 15 of the 34 members attended UM schools — a dozen at the Columbia campus best known as MU — a formidable voting bloc if they united to defend their alma mater against a rival taking a similar sounding name, MSU.
Yet most senators have remained silent.
For example, Sen. Chuck Gross, R-St. Charles, who has both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from MU, opposes the name change but isn’t joining Jacob’s filibuster.
“The name is not that big of a deal to me,” he said.
Jacob doesn’t understand that attitude — nor why UM system President Elson Floyd hasn’t called out the alumni brigade.
Floyd, asked why he wasn’t mobilizing alumni against the bill, responded with a reference to some academically competitive restrictions he recommended be placed on Southwest Missouri State if lawmakers pursue the name change.
“I’ve made it very clear in trying to provide some guidelines in my judgment for the General Assembly to consider,” Floyd said. “It is up now for the General Assembly to make the decision regarding the name change for Southwest Missouri.”
Unspoken was the fact that Floyd is pushing legislation to authorize a $190 million bond plan for construction at the University of Missouri’s four campuses, as well as approval to lease land in Columbia to a private hotel and convention center developer.
After several years of state funding cuts to higher education, UM is searching for unconventional ways to get money. Vocal opposition to the plans of a rival university could build animosity in the Capitol, ultimately hurting the bond proposal.
Add to that another twist: The UM bond plan is sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder and House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, both of whom also support the Southwest Missouri State name change.
This might not initially seem like a logical fit. Kinder and Hanaway both attended the MU. Kinder is from Cape Girardeau, and Hanaway is from suburban St. Louis — not exactly in Springfield’s natural sphere of interest.
But Kinder and Hanaway are both running for statewide office, Kinder for lieutenant governor and Hanaway for secretary of state. And southwest Missouri is fertile ground for campaign contributions and votes — especially for Republicans such as themselves.
Kinder all but acknowledged as much when asked if he was supporting the Springfield school’s name change partly because of his statewide candidacy.
“Are we going to be like Claude Rains in ‘Casablanca’ and be ‘Shocked! Shocked!’ that consideration like that might enter into it? So what?” Kinder said.
Unlike Jacob, who thinks Springfield’s gain would be Columbia’s loss, Kinder thinks the name change would help the state as a whole.
“It is a marketing issue for Missouri — to get Missouri’s name out more in the way that Kansas State and Oklahoma State and Michigan State and Iowa State get their names out,” Kinder said. “It is something that has been percolating for 20 years, it has a lot of bipartisan support, and the governor has said he will sign the bill.”
Gov. Bob Holden, by the way, got his political science degree from Southwest Missouri State University.