Ex-curator says funding may cost in freedom

Sunday, February 11, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:13 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

In the midst of legislative wrangling over higher education funding, MU leaders must decide whether buildings are worth the loss of independent governance and academic freedom.

That’s the opinion of more than a dozen former curators, including John Lichtenegger, a former president of the University of Missouri System Board of Curators. Speaking for the group, Lichtenegger told MU’s Faculty Council and the Intercampus Faculty Council last week that Gov. Matt Blunt’s plan to sell assets of the state’s student loan authority to improve infrastructure in the state’s colleges and set up a financial aid program requires a “frank and open discussion by all Missourians.”

After listening to Lichtenegger, the Faculty Council agreed to consider Blunt’s plan in a later discussion. In the meantime, the council unanimously passed a resolution opposing any restrictions on “lawful academic freedom.”

Senate Bill 389, as Blunt’s plan is now known, would grant new responsibilities to many state organizations, including the Coordinating Board for Higher Education, in what Lichtenegger called “a transfer of power unprecedented in the history of the state.” Lichtenegger said that because of MU’s status as a charter institution under the state constitution, the changes proposed by the bill should be put to a statewide vote.

Under the proposed bill, universities would no longer be able to raise tuition above a level indicated by the Consumer Price Index for inflation. Lichtenegger said that the cost of college is more accurately reflected by the Higher Education Price Index. He also said the bill would not help colleges that could not raise tuition enough to cover costs.

There are similar problems with the bill’s proposed need-based scholarships, he said. Both individual students and institutions would be responsible for furnishing economic statistics to a third party, a mandate that Lichtenegger said was not only burdensome, but also unfunded under the current form of the bill.

The former curators’ greatest objection to the bill is the stipulation that funding would not go to any facilities that would be used for embryonic stem cell research. The most recent version of the bill cuts funding for the MU Health Sciences Research and Education Center. Lichtenegger argued that this was an infringement on the ability of MU researchers to engage in legally sanctioned research.

“We’re not talking about going beyond the law,” Lichtenegger said.

William Crist, Dean of the MU School of Medicine, said that while he opposed restrictions, he would consider accepting the limits in order to obtain funding. He said that MU cannot expect the funding from other sources and that the center would not be used for embryonic stem cell research anyway.

“There’s not going to be the capacity or the space in this building for doing stem cell research,” Crist said.

Lichtenegger said it was necessary that the UM System maintains its governance and resists any infringements on its academic freedom, even when funding is at stake.

“The power of the curators should not be traded for anything,” he said.

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