The provost’s perspective

MU Provost Brian Foster says he’s not sure Spellings’ report offers a good solution
Monday, September 18, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:54 p.m. CDT, Sunday, June 29, 2008

The potential for significant reforms in higher education has MU Provost Brian Foster reconsidering the university’s academic priorities, even as he and other MU officials struggle to deal with decreases in state appropriations.

In an interview last week, Foster said he wants to add some academic programs in areas, such as journalism, business, nursing and communication studies, that have exceeded student capacity. He would also like to increase graduate school applications through greater cooperation with other institutions that would refer students to MU’s graduate programs.

Foster would like to generate more public discussion about one controversial proposal by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ Commission for the Future of Higher Education: that students be tested on how well they meet their general education requirements. Foster is among high-ranking educators from around the country who are skeptical about that proposal because, they say, it assumes all universities teach the same thing.

Foster discussed how his ideas fit in with the Spellings’ commission’s report, which is due to be released in final form next week.

Q. How important is it for MU to produce people who can contribute to America’s economic development?

A. I spent more time on that last year than anything else, and I can tell you what our approach is. The three big pieces are this: First of all, we’re the biggest enterprise in the state. We’re a billion-dollar company with 15,000 employees. How many of those are there in the state? Economic development depends an awful lot on being creative, inventing new products, recruiting new companies to bring their products to the market. We do a lot of that. Our scientists and engineers and business people invent new processes.

The second piece is, we train workforce. The third part is we support economic development.

Q. In terms of economic development, the Spellings commission suggests that teaching students science, technology, engineering and math is the most important goal of a university. Do you agree with that?

A. Well, no, I don’t. It’s one of the important things about a university. The university is an incredibly complex organization. If you had a big firm and you wanted to move it or spin off a new company, would you put it in a place where the quality of life is terrible? Where there were crappy newspapers? Where the schools were bad? Don’t think so!


Provost Brian Foster, working in his Jesse Hall office, just began his second academic year at MU. Although university officials are dealing with less state funding, Foster would still like to work toward reforming policies in higher education. (ZACH HONIG/Missourian)

So part of economic development is creating a high quality of life, locally, so that a company would want to be here. The university’s a huge part of that. Athletics, the arts venues, all of that. All of this is tied together in complicated ways, so it’s hard to say, “Well, is that the main role of a university?” It’s an important role, but you can’t have new products coming out of the university if you don’t have good science going on. You can’t have good science going on if you’re not training good science teachers to get the kids into science when they’re in school.

Q. How do decreasing state appropriations affect access to higher education?

A. It’s a huge issue. Now, I’m not trying to beat up on the state, you understand. They just didn’t have any money, and one of the things that got hit was higher education because it was one of the few discretionary parts of the state budget. So what happens is, we had to increase tuition. It’s a huge issue for access. One of the things in the Spellings commission, at one point there’s discussion of limiting tuition increases to the amount of Consumer Price Index, or average family income, that sort of thing. If we hadn’t had the tuition increases, we’d have fired a bunch of faculty, and we wouldn’t have capacity, and that would have affected access, too.

Q. The commission wants universities to be more innovative, entrepreneurial and creative and figure out how to raise money. What is MU doing?

A. We’ve got a successful billion-dollar campaign going on. We’re working on tech transfer, which generates money. We bring in several hundred thousands of dollars from out of state in various ways. We’re doing research. Something like a fourth of the budget of the university is run by self-supporting operations. So yeah, we’re trying to be entrepreneurial, but there are limits to what you can do. I think it’d be wonderful if someone came and gave us a $25 billion gift or something, an endowment that would just replace the state appropriation or something, but I’m not holding my breath.

Q. Do you agree with the Spellings commission proposal that all students take a standardized test after they have met their general education requirement?

A. In the form proposed, frankly, no. The biggest problem I have with the Spellings commission report is — let me first say, I’m not totally negative about all this discussion, I think there are some huge policy issues that need to be addressed. Having said that, however, I want to say that I think the Spellings commission report attempted to do this with a one-size-fits-all approach, and that’s just plain hopeless.

Yeah, it probably makes sense to have some kind of accountability approach. What that might be, I don’t know.

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