[Note: this story has been modified since its original posting to correct errors.]
JEFFERSON CITY — The signature of an eager governor is all that remains before Southwest Missouri State University realizes its goal of becoming Missouri State University.
Over the objections of an impassioned, bipartisan group of lawmakers, the House voted 120-35 to pass the Senate bill that bestows the name on the Springfield school. The House sponsor, Rep. B. J. Marsh, R-Springfield, was surprised at the overwhelming victory, saying he expected only about 90 votes in favor.
The Senate sponsor, Sen. Norma Champion, R-Springfield, said she expects Gov. Matt Blunt to sign the legislation as part of SMSU’s 100th anniversary celebration on March 17.
Blunt, who hails from southwestern Missouri, made the name change one of his top legislative priorities and held a news conference in Springfield after the vote to laud the legislature’s actions. In a written statement, Blunt said that the name Missouri State University better describes the Springfield school’s role but that the legislation ensures “that the University of Missouri will continue to be the state’s premier land-grant institution as well as the state’s premier research institution.”
Marsh, whose voice cracked as he spoke after the vote about the effort it took to push the bill through, said it feels good finally to be on the winning end.
“We deserved it, and we got it,” he said.
House Minority Leader Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, and Reps. Bryan Pratt, R-Blue Springs, and Brian Yates, R-Lee’s Summit, led much of the opposition during Tuesday’s floor debate.
While supporters predicted the change would spark economic growth, Harris criticized the governor for “pushing a personal project on the taxpayers of Missouri.”
“This name change won’t help one more student receive a college degree,” Harris said. “We would be better served if his focus were on looking where we are as a state and looking how we can make higher education more affordable.”
Rep. Jack Goodman, R-Mount Vernon, said SMSU has grown extensively. He said that although it was unworthy of the statewide designation while he was in college, its quality and enrollment now warrant the Missouri State designation.
In addition to better classifying the school, Goodman said the new name would boost the amount of money available for higher education by attracting more out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition rates.
“New students bring new revenue,” he said. “The result is an excellent combination of quality and affordability.”
Provisions added to the bill as a compromise prevent SMSU from seeking additional funding based on its new name and from duplicating graduate and doctoral programs offered by the University of Missouri System.
Despite those compromises, Rep. Steve Hobbs, R-Mexico, said the UM system gave up a lot.
“There was a great sacrifice by the University of Missouri,” Hobbs said, “and I hope the legislature is going to reciprocate by being more favorable when its needs come up.”
During floor debate in the Senate, the bill overcame an all-night filibuster by Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia when UM system President Elson Floyd told Graham to stand down and allow the bill to pass.
Several opponents of the name change criticized Floyd for backing out of the fray.
“I am so disappointed with the UM system,” Pratt said. “President Floyd and the curators, I think, dropped the ball in not fighting for their name.”
Pratt said he has no doubt that if another school 100 years from now were to want the name Southwest Missouri State University, the president of the new Missouri State University would fight the proposal.
Several Democrats accused Blunt of exercising undue influence over the debate, while many Republicans said UM system supporters engaged in strong-arm tactics of their own. Both sides deny the accusations.
“I can say this: the alumni from the University of Missouri do not give up on anything,” Champion said. “I can understand that, but I think things got blown way out of proportion.”
Much of the opposition centered on beliefs that the name change would siphon money from the UM system, confuse the mission of SMSU and undermine the regional university system by making SMSU a lone, second-tier school behind MU.
“If SMSU is not going to take on the mission and programs of a statewide university, they shouldn’t get the name,” said Rep. Judy Baker, D-Columbia.