SPRINGFIELD — In a show of institutional unity that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, University of Missouri President Elson Floyd and Missouri State University President Michael T. Nietzel made a joint appearance Wednesday to urge continued state support for public higher education.
The presidents said the rivalry between Missouri’s two largest universities was over, replaced by a united message aimed, in particular, at the General Assembly: Public universities are a good investment for Missouri tax dollars.
“There is a symbolism obviously to the fact that the University of Missouri and Missouri State University are here together, and I hope that’s not lost on anybody,” Nietzel told a crowded luncheon event hosted by the Rotary Club.
“I hope Springfield as well as the rest of Missouri appreciates the fact that we believe we’ll accomplish a lot more as partners than we will whenever we spat,” he said.
The institutions and their backers fought for years over the Springfield school’s desire to drop the regional designator from its historic name — Southwest Missouri State. University of Missouri backers long feared the larger and older school would lose funds and prestige, but the legislature finally approved it in early 2005.
“That is all behind us,” said Floyd, who in the end dropped objections to the name change.
The presentation was the third in a series Floyd is making around the state with the presidents of Missouri’s public universities.
Floyd said the united front made it easier to show the public and the General Assembly that public universities are focused on being efficient with tax dollars, remaining affordable and providing a good return on investment.
As a sign of new cooperation, Nietzel and Floyd are scheduled to sign an agreement Monday to offer two engineering programs from the University of Missouri-Rolla on the campus of Missouri State.
Floyd said the Legislature needs to increase its investment after giving state universities a 2 percent budget increase this year following several years of cuts or unchanged funding.
The presidents said state funding for higher education has slipped. Nietzel said it was down by nearly one-third in the past 25 years. Floyd said state funds provided 56 percent of his four-campus university system’s operating budget in 2000 but just 39 percent this year, with most of the rest made up by tuition and fees.
“While we applaud the 2 percent increase that we received recently, and we will continue to exercise appropriate stewardship of those dollars, we still have a tremendous distance to go in our state,” Floyd said.
Among ten Midwestern states, Nietzel said, Missouri ranked last in per capita state spending on public higher education.
But higher education is a benefit, for individuals and the state, Nietzel said.
Individuals with college degrees earn more. The state realizes benefits ranging from higher taxes based on higher incomes to higher rates of voting to lower rates of incarceration, he said.