JEFFERSON CITY — A highly contentious meeting of the House Higher Education Committee ended Tuesday with a 10-1 vote to send to the full House a bill dropping the regional designation from Southwest Missouri State University’s name.
The bill is now two votes away from the desk of Gov. Matt Blunt, who is eager to sign it into law.
Testimony at the hearing included an accusation from an MU professor of strong-arming on the part of Gov. Matt Blunt and testimony from an MU student that prompted one lawmaker to tell him not to “piss off” people he’s trying to persuade.
Student clashes with committee
The student, Greg Chase, broke an air of calm at the hearing when he introduced himself as committee chairman Gayle Kingery and then asked the Popular Bluff Republican representative if he felt his name had been stolen.
Chase then told committee members they were unqualified to vote on the measure if they didn’t know all its implications. His remarks included recitations from two MU yearbooks that dated back to a time when the school was known as Missouri State University. He also displayed poster-size pictures of campus buildings named after administrators from the era.
The remarks and the “moxie” of Chase’s tone prompted Rep. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, to reprimand Chase.
Rupp, who apologized to Chase before the meeting adjourned, said he thought the tone escalated because of the student’s “offensive” remark about the committee’s qualifications and a “cheesy” argument that SMSU would be guilty of false advertising if it presented itself as a statewide university.
“If you’re going to make a point, fine, but don’t piss off the people on the committee that you’re trying to convince,” Rupp said.
The name change has been the subject of filibusters by two Columbia Democratic senators in the past two years. A filibuster by Sen. Chuck Graham last week was broken, however, when University of Missouri System President Elson Floyd asked Graham in an e-mail to allow a vote. As a compromise, the name-change bill was amended to bar SMSU from duplicating the research, mission and professional programs of MU; to prohibit the state from giving the Springfield school more money simply because its name had changed; and to require SMSU to coordinate with MU in offering postgraduate degrees.
MU professor provokes controversy
Jim Sterling, a former University of Missouri curator who is a professor of journalism at MU, drew the ire of from some committee Republicans when he testified that the only reason Floyd agreed to compromise was that Blunt had threatened a cut of up to $150 million in state appropriations to UM.
Blunt spokesman Paul Sloca called that “an absolute lie” and said it is unfortunate a journalism professor would fail to check his facts.
House Speaker Pro Tem Carl Bearden, R-St. Charles, said Sterling was a “less-than-credible witness for throwing out wild accusations.”
Responding to the criticism, Sterling said after the meeting that he was sitting next to a person to whom he overheard Floyd explain the threat. Sterling declined to identify the person.
Joe Moore, UM director of media relations, said “there was no conversation between Dr. Floyd and the governor, and I don’t have any idea what conversation Mr. Sterling is speaking of.”
The tone of the testimony backfired with at least one legislator. Rep. Tim Flook, R-Liberty, said he was neutral until he felt the “heat” from people associated with MU.
“There has been a lot of strong-arming by the Mizzou people on this issue,” he said. “They are talking about the governor’s influence on this, but I’ve barely spoken to the governor about this. This has dwindled down to one school simply concerned about its bragging rights.”
Bill prepared for approval
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Norma Champion, R-Springfield, said it is rewarding to see the bill she has pushed for several years near approval.
“I just hope that before people throw accusations around that they take the time to really document it,” she said. “We’ve heard a lot of accusations without base. Before this, people were talking about SMSU trying to take over (the University of Missouri) Rolla.”
Sterling and Chase said they oppose the change out of concern the state cannot bear the cost of another statewide university. Sterling also said the change would elevate SMSU to a tier below MU and a tier above other regional universities, thereby cheapening degrees from the regional schools.
“All these schools will be pushed down a level,” Sterling said. “Simple arithmetic says that if you’re No. 2 and one of the other No. 2s moves up, you’re now No. 3.”
The bill will be heard by the House Rules Committee today, which will decide how long floor debate will last. It could go to the House floor as soon as Thursday but probably would not see debate until Monday or Tuesday.