Events converge to push SMSU bill

Five key factors mean a name change looks more likely than ever.
Monday, February 21, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:42 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — If you’ve watched the World Series or Super Bowl, you might have noticed athletes donning T-shirts and hats proclaiming their teams world champs — often just moments after the game ends.

To look good in victory requires some advance work by an entrepreneur.

Accordingly, it might be a good time for some resourceful Springfield businesses to start sketching out the T-shirt designs for “Missouri State University.”

Although the political game is not over, victory appears more likely than ever for those who have sought for decades to drop the regional designation from the name of Southwest Missouri State University.

Legislation enabling the name change passed the Senate last week — a first in itself — and already has been assigned to the House Higher Education Committee. If it passes the House, Gov. Matt Blunt — a native of Springfield — is eager to sign it into law.

Supporters of the name change contend it is long overdue recognition for the Springfield school, which has grown from its 1905 founding as State Normal School No. 4 to become Missouri’s second-largest campus behind MU. They also contend the new name would better attract students, staff, donors and businesses — in essence elevating the economy of the region and state.

Opposition has historically come from the University of Missouri system — particularly alumni of its flagship campus in Columbia — who fear a second statewide-sounding university would detract from the University of Missouri’s prestige, finances and academic mission.

Determined opponents have always prevailed, helped partly by an ambivalence from those who neither live in Springfield or Columbia nor attended those universities.

The proposed name change was first filed as a bill in 1986, but its idea dates even earlier.

Sen. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, recalls lobbying for the Missouri State University name while a student at Southwest Missouri State University in 1981. And former university president Marshall Gordon told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1989 that he found T-shirts promoting the Missouri State University name from as far back as the 1970s.

So why, after all these years, does the name change appear more likely to occur?

There are several favorable factors:

  • Strong support from Blunt. Although Gov. Bob Holden was an alumnus of Southwest Missouri State University and supported the name change, he never made it a top legislative priority. Blunt has. The governor dispatched his chief of staff, his deputy chief of staff for policy and his legislative liaison to monitor the Senate’s all-night debate on legislation last week. Their interest helped push the bill through the chamber.
  • A commitment by Senate leaders to force a vote on the bill. Senate Majority Floor Leader Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, made senators remain at work all night — an unprecedented move in recent history — to show filibustering Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, that he could not block a vote on the bill. The move paid off in a compromise.
  • A broadened base of support. This year’s bill also includes less controversial name changes for Harris-Stowe and Missouri Western state colleges and for Missouri Southern State University-Joplin, as well as the option for Central Missouri State University to alter its name. That has created a greater interest in the bill for people such Shields and Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
  • The support of University of Missouri President Elson Floyd. With the governor and Senate leaders trying forge a compromise and force a vote, Floyd was roused around 3:30 a.m. with a call from the Capitol seeking his approval of an amendment allowing the name change in exchange for academic restrictions on the Springfield campus. Floyd consented, sending Graham an e-mail at 5:51 a.m. urging him to stand down from his filibuster.
  • A different atmosphere in the House. Last year, representatives defeated the name-change bill despite a hard push from House leadership. This year, House leaders have generally taken a more cooperative approach. And Floyd’s letter has led University of Missouri alumnus Brian Yates, R-Lee’s Summit, to tone down his vigorous opposition.

Yates still wants to tinker with the bill’s financial restrictions on the Springfield school — something House sponsor Rep. B.J. Marsh, R-Springfield, does not want to do. So there is potential for the bill to run into trouble again.

But chances for the bill’s passage are still “better than ever ... 100 percent better this year,” Marsh said.

Officials at Southwest Missouri State University aren’t printing “MSU” T-shirts quite yet. They haven’t even developed an official logo for “Missouri State University.” But they have started to think about it.

“People are — to use a cliche — cautiously optimistic,” said university spokesman Don Hendricks.

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