As catastrophe looms, people often turn to dark humor. So it was last week after Provost Brian Foster finished explaining to a group of faculty the dire realities of the university’s budget.
Despite his array of numbers that strongly suggested the contrary, Provost Foster gamely repeated, “The sky is not falling.”
A skeptical faculty member asked, “But how will we tell if it is falling?”
The provost chuckled — a bit weakly, I thought — and advised, “Just keep looking up.”
That exchange came Tuesday afternoon, near the end of the second of two conversations about the budget, in which Provost Foster and his budget officer, Pat Morton, laid out an array of figures, a depressing proportion of them red. The main goal seemed to be to show why another $5 million must be carved from next year’s budget, mainly by not filling faculty vacancies, in order to raise the salaries of the survivors.
On a big screen in a darkened room, Morton traced the budgetary decline of our university. In 2001, the state appropriation for university operations was $193 million. In fiscal 2008, it’s $182 million. When you take inflation into account, that’s a real reduction of $50 million.
Missouri ranks 47th among the 50 states in per capita spending on higher education. In the last two years, our percentage increase in higher education spending ranks 50th. Tuition now supplies about 52 percent of the operating budget; state appropriation 41 percent. The rest comes from grants, contracts and the Salvation Army. (That last is my own little joke.)
For faculty salaries, the university’s modest goal is to be in the middle of the 32 public members of the Association of American Universities. This year we’re 31st, ahead of only Oregon.
The Blunt Administration has agreed to boost the budget from starvation to food stamp level if the university will carve matching funds from its own corpus.
To me, that looks like institutional cannibalism. Things look different and somehow brighter to a provost. When a faculty member in the room suggested that the evidence on the screen and elsewhere proves that the university is under assault from Jefferson City, Provost Foster went into a verbal tap dance.
The relationship between higher education and our political leaders is “very complicated,” he allowed. Then he insisted, “This is a great university, a world-class university.”
A more realistic assessment, I couldn’t help thinking, would have been the one a reader once suggested as a motto for the Missourian: “Pretty good for what it is.”
What our university is, what it has become, is best revealed by this pair of numbers: While the number of regular faculty members has remained about the same — around 1,500 — over the past decade, the number of students has increased by a third, to nearly 30,000.
That’s a great business model, all right, but a great university?
After the session, I walked out of the alumni center behind the provost and his two aides. They were walking side by side, all dressed in black. They reminded me of pallbearers headed for a funeral.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.