The rhetoric centers on a name change, but the battle about a proposal to rechristen Southwest Missouri State University has long been a regional struggle over state resources.
Craig Hosmer, chairman of the Democratic Party in Greene County, represented Springfield in the House from 1991 to 2002. Hosmer, an MU graduate, sponsored the name-change bill during part of his tenure. He said the issue has been blown out of proportion.
“I really don’t think the name change should be as controversial as it is,” he said. “I don’t think what’s good for SMS is automatically bad for MU.”
Hosmer traces the controversy to a battle of wills between universities, not political parties.
“We’ve had bipartisan support (for the change),” he said. “I think it’s more of a regional issue. I think it’s a turf battle between institutions of higher education. … it’s more who you team up with, MU or SMS.”
Hosmer noted that the bill passed in the House in 2002, a year in which Democrats were the majority, but failed in a Republican-controlled Senate.
State Sen.-elect Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, agrees that the issue is far from Blue vs. Red. Republicans, who will control the legislature and governor’s office in January, are putting their muscle behind the proposal this time around, but Graham does not think the deal is done. He pointed out that Gov. Bob Holden, a Democrat, said he would sign the bill last session, but that was not enough to push it through.
“I don’t think the dynamic has changed all that much,” Graham said.
Graham and Gordon Christensen, head of MU’s Faculty Council, said the drive to rename SMSU is a push to siphon resources from the University of Missouri system.
“It’s far more than the name,” Christensen said. “It is nothing less than an attempt to make Southwest Missouri State the equivalent of the university system, or even to make it superior.”
Christensen said the debate is about the allocation of resources for institutions of higher education and the missions of the different schools. MU is a land-grant institution with a statewide research and teaching mission. SMSU began as a regional school but was given a statewide public-affairs mission in 1995. If SMSU is allowed to use state resources to build its programs and add new ones — which Christensen and Graham think is its goal — money will be taken away from MU and the other schools in the UM system, Christensen and Graham said.
“I think it’s greediness and political maneuvering,” Christensen said of SMSU President John Keiser’s recent name-change and collaboration proposal. “It’s an attempt to deprive the university of its historical role. I think it’s terrible that the legislature would even begin to consider this.”
Keiser’s proposal, presented to UM system President Elson Floyd, calls for increased collaboration between SMSU and the system in exchange for the system’s support of the name change. Supporters of the plan, including Keiser, said it was put forward in a spirit of cooperation. Keiser has said SMSU is not trying to steal anything from the UM system and does not desire to be a flagship school.
Rep. B.J. Marsh, R-Springfield, agreed. Marsh has been involved with name-change proposals since he was elected in 1988 and is sponsoring the House bill this year. He said the name change signifies SMSU’s past and continuing growth but insists that it is not an attempt to wrest power from the UM system.
“I think they’re just using that as garbage, as talk,” Marsh said. “We’re not asking for more money.”
In Marsh’s view, the problem lies with MU.
“I think it’s definitely Missouri not wanting SMS to have it,” he said. “I don’t see it as a party-line issue at all.”
Marsh said he expects SMSU to continue its pattern of growth and increasing selectivity, name change or not. But he is not willing to give up on the name.
“I think it will grow even more with the name,” he said.
Because he has seen Democrats and Republicans on both sides of the issue before, Marsh is not counting on the Republican majority and Gov.-elect Matt Blunt’s support to carry the bill through this time around. Blunt is from Springfield. Marsh said he hopes that will help but noted that regardless of who is in power, it takes 82 votes to pass a bill in the House.
Although partisan politics might play into the debate this session, those involved said the issue has been a regional one from the beginning.
“Southwest Missouri has been supportive of (the name change) regardless of political parties,” said Rex Campbell, MU professor of rural sociology and a member of the Faculty Council. “Only more recently has it become a party activity. For the first several decades, it was not a partisan activity.”
Campbell said SMSU’s struggle to increase its scope goes back farther than the debate in the General Assembly, which began in 1988.
“They have had desires to have a much broader mission for at least 30 years,” he said. “So this is simply another step in their attempts to become a more full-fledged university rather than the old teacher’s college image that they started out with.”
The UM system has taken no official position on the proposed name change. Opponents argue that the change amounts to identity theft of the system’s flagship. According to newspaper reports, then-Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, said during a filibuster last session that MU once was known as Missouri State.
In addition to the Faculty Council, the MU Alumni Association and Central Missouri State University have taken stances against the change. Keiser’s five-point plan fueled the controversy once again.
Christensen said he is aware that the struggle may build animosity against MU in Jefferson City, but he said fault for the continuing controversy does not lie in Columbia.
“We’re not agitating,” he said. “We’re not trying to take anything away. They started this fight, and I don’t see why anyone should be upset with us for just trying to defend our good name.”
Although proponents have threatened to make things difficult for Columbia lawmakers if they attempt to stop the bill again, Graham said he is not worried.
“It’s always easier to kill a bill than it is to pass one,” he said. Graham said he is prepared to do whatever he can, including filibuster for hours, to stop the proposal.
“I don’t care how it dies,” he said. “Just that it dies.”
Graham and Christensen said they would not be opposed to seeing SMSU join the UM system, but Marsh said the school is not interested in that. Graham also said he would go along if the university chose an entirely different name, as occurred in 1995 when Northeast Missouri State University became Truman State University.
“They can have any other name they want,” he said. “They just can’t have ours.”