Making sense of the merger mystery

UM and Northwest officials explain the benefits of merging
Monday, March 15, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:41 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Taylor Barnes loved geography so much that he thought his MU bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the field were not enough. He would have stayed in Missouri for a doctoral program, but there weren’t any. So he jumped ship to the University of Illinois-Urbana. That was 30 years ago.

Today, Barnes is provost at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville and hopes that by merging the school with the University of Missouri system, Northwest will be able to offer some doctoral-level programs not available in the state — including geography.

“I want the other four campuses in the system to welcome us,” Barnes said in his office on the Maryville campus. “I see us all as one big family as a result of the merger.”

Making the merge

A merger of the two institutions has been explored for almost a year now, and it’s a legislative nod away from being set in stone. Termed “unique” by UM and Northwest administrators and by higher-education experts, administrators say this might be the largest voluntary merger of two public universities ever. Leaders at both Northwest and the UM system say there is plenty to gain.

Most important from Northwest’s standpoint, the merger would give it the opportunity to offer doctoral programs. In turn, the system would develop a greater presence in the northwest corner of the state.

Northwest has great expertise in alternative fuels, educational quality, geographic information systems and recreation and would like to offer doctoral programs in these areas, Barnes said. The four-campus UM system is the state’s land-grant, doctorate-granting institution, so the merger is an obvious choice for Northwest.

Despite its statewide mission, the UM system has no real presence in the Maryville area except for an agricultural extension office. But if it wants to reach out to new areas, why turn to Northwest, one of the state’s smaller four-year undergraduate institutions that serves the surrounding region of the state and offers some master’s programs?

“They are the best regional institution in the state in terms of adding value to undergraduates,” said Steve Lehmkuhle, UM system vice president for academic affairs.

“Adding value” means that college freshmen perform better academically than their scores on high school standardized tests would predict. Lehmkuhle said that knowledge would benefit the system.

The difference in admission standards — Northwest is not as selective as the UM system — has raised questions about the merger. Barnes said Northwest’s standards won’t change as a result of the merger and he thinks the three-point difference from the system’s admission requirement of a score of 24 on the ACT doesn’t make much difference.

“We can take that 21-ACT student and turn himinto a student that fits very well into the UM system,” Barnes said.


Taylor Barnes, Northwest Missouri State University provost, hopes the merger with the University of Missouri system will be finalized.

Maryville is a small oasis of city life in the midst of surrounding farm fields in far northwest Missouri, north of Kansas City by about 90 miles. Lined with older storefronts, its Main Street could be plucked straight from a 1950s movie, and the university’s student population of 6,574 is equal to more than half the town’s population. This university town differs from the more metropolitan areas of the university system, but the school exudes the same aura of higher learning as most college campuses.

The main difference between the UM and Maryville institutions is their designations; Northwest is a master’s-granting institution with a focus on undergraduate teaching. All four campuses in the system — Columbia, Kansas City, Rolla and St. Louis — are doctoral-granting institutions engaged in research.

These missions are not going to change, Northwest and UM system officials said.

Although the addition of a few doctoral programs is driving merger efforts in Maryville, Northwest’s representatives stress this will not change the school’s core mission: undergraduate teaching. Speaking for the system, Lehmkuhle said Northwest’s current focus is what makes the institution attractive.

“It is important for us that they stay who they are,” Lehmkuhle said.

In Northwest’s student union coffeehouse, Mike Wilson, faculty senate president, speaks candidly about his school’s future and the reasons behind the merger.

“If things were going to stand still, we probably would have never gotten into the merger,” Wilson said. “But if you look into the future, there are definitely some opportunities and threats that could impact us quite a bit. We’re probably better off under a UM umbrella.”

A statewide system?

It doesn’t take much to figure that adding a fifth campus to the UM system would give it not only more reach, but also probably more bargaining power with the Missouri General Assembly. Even more interestingly, it will present the UM system with its first roster change since its conception in 1963.

“If Northwest merges with the UM system, our member campuses will be more diverse than they were in the past,” Lehmkuhle said.

Most systems around the country are a blend of doctoral, research-intensive institutions and smaller schools focusing on undergraduate education.

Lehmkuhle said he heard critics from outside the university saying they oppose the merger because it will change the balance of power in Missouri higher education. The intent of the merger is not to create another governance system in the state, Lehmkuhle said, but he does acknowledge that the merger might do that.

Higher-education experts and faculty at MU said the merger might be a first step toward a statewide university system, such as the 26-campus system in Wisconsin.

“This alters higher-education forever,” said Rep. Brad Lager, R-Maryville. “It changes the makeup of the system, not just the University of Missouri system, but the system of the state.”

The merger would also see Northwest break out of Missouri’s “second-tier system,” the pool of regional schools that have grown accustomed to fighting for the pot of money left after the system gets its share from the state. In the 2003-04 fiscal year, the system received almost 25 percent more in state funds than the other 10 state universities and colleges combined.

Barnes said he understands regional institutions might oppose the merger because there would be one less of them “to gang up on the system.” But in his opinion, it’s better to join the system, and he would have no problem with other regional schools becoming part of the UM system. 

“I would much rather be part of the system because it opens doors and gives opportunities to our students,” Barnes said.

The fight for resources

Some faculty members on the MU campus have expressed concerns that Northwest is joining the system to pull resources from the existing campuses. Barnes said the other schools should not worry about that and goes back to the 15-point memorandum of understanding drafted between the two schools. The memorandum says Northwest will keep its current amount of state appropriations.

Wilson likes the school just the way it is and hopes the system won’t change it much — with the exception of corralling a few new doctoral programs.

Neither Barnes nor Lehmkuhle knows where funds for those possible programs would come from. Providing a doctoral program, Lehmkuhle said, is seven times more expensive than providing an undergraduate program. Both academic officers added that neither system nor Northwest resources will be used for these programs.

 “We’re not going to ask for more state dollars to fund these doctoral programs because we feel that’s a choice we’re making,” Barnes said. “We’re going to have the internal resources through grants, private gifts, fees and tuition.”

Doctoral programs go hand in hand with grants, which Northwest doesn’t get at the moment.

“We’d get a lot of help from the system because, frankly, we can’t compete for grants right now,” Wilson said. “We could start applying for grants that are out of our ballpark right now.”

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