For MU, troubled times are already here

Sunday, July 15, 2007 | 2:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:14 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Kennedy is a professor emeritus at the MU School of Journalism.

Here we go again.

Some of my university friends worry that we’re headed back to the bad old days of the Ashcroft administration, when a hostile governor and a politicized Board of Curators thought — or said they thought — that they could achieve greatness by slashing away at the institution.

After last week’s announcement of the “Compete Missouri” plan to cut another $7 million from the budget of the flagship campus, I can tell those troubled friends to stop worrying about where we’re headed. We’re already there.

In both the Ashcroft era and the Boy Governor’s current reprise, our state university has fallen into the hands, and at the mercy, of highly ideological chief executives. In both cases, those governors and tight-fisted legislators refused to support what was intended to be a state-supported institution. In both cases, a Republican-dominated Board of Curators, rather than stand up and fight for the university, has stood down and ordered administrators to cannibalize in order that the survivors might eat.

The most obvious link between the two eras is Curator Doug Russell, son of a once-prominent state senator and father of a top aide to Gov. Blunt. Curator Russell has the unique distinction of having served as curators’ president under both governors Ashcroft and Blunt. He’s not quite unique in his other distinction — being simultaneously both a curator and state chairman of the Republican Party. The other slasher to have held both posts at once was the legendary Woody Cozad.

As I recall, the Columbia campus chancellors in the Ashcroft era didn’t have much more fun than Brady Deaton seems to be having these days. One of them, Barbara Uehling, made the mistake of thinking that the curators of her day had the courage of their convictions. Old-timers will remember that she set out to reorganize and amputate whole divisions, instead of the bureaucratic micro-surgery that seems to be the current prescription.

Deans and alumni weren’t so acquiescent back then. Rebellion erupted, the curators buckled, and ex-Chancellor Uehling was soon on her way to California.

Her successor was a nice fellow named Haskell Monroe. He collected bricks, loved to talk southern history (he actually even taught undergraduate courses) and was widely regarded in academic circles as not the brightest bulb on the tree. But he did something rare. When the Cozad-led curators imposed one cut too many, he quit. I still admire him for that.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not advocating that Chancellor Deaton resign. I don’t doubt that “Compete Missouri” is what he sees as the least among evils. He’s probably right about that, with the Russell-Walsworth board prepared to order yet another round of cuts over the next three years.

What I do advocate is that real friends of the university stand up and speak up. There hasn’t been enough of either, on the campus or around the state. We’re just a year away from the next accountability opportunity, the 2008 election.

When our university most needs intelligent, passionate advocates, who will they be?

George Kennedy is a former managing editor of the Missourian.

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