Is MU a public or a private institution?

Monday, December 31, 2007 | 6:03 p.m. CST; updated 7:31 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

In a “Dear Reader” column Dec. 22, Tom Warhover solicited comments on the appointment of Gary Forsee as the new president of the University of Missouri system. The following is my response to that request.

With the selection of Gary Forsee as its new president, the University of Missouri apparently has confirmed its commitment to the privatization of MU.

Sen. Kit Bond cited Forsee’s “tremendous executive experience” as good news for the UM System, although Forsee has never been chief administrator of a public educational institution.

Chancellor Guy Bailey of UMKC commented: “We need someone who can do creative business things.” Forsee said he hopes “the skills he’s learned in the corporate world will translate smoothly into academia.” (Missourian, Dec. 21).

A public university is not a business, and public administration requires skills and values very different from those of a corporate CEO. Public institutions must serve the interests of the people as a whole, not the interests of individual investors, entrepreneurs, workers or even individual citizens. Those who fail to recognize, understand and accept this important distinction possess neither the values nor skills needed to administer a public university.

Our public institutions are being systematically diverted to serve private interests under the guise of economic development. Admittedly, many private enterprises create public as well as private benefits, but the purely private benefits are generally sufficient to ensure public benefits without taxpayer subsidies.

Obviously, it’s not appropriate to use taxpayer dollars to compensate private businesses for every public benefit they create in their pursuit of profits. Scarce taxpayer dollars should be reserved to support those things that are not profitable for businesses or private individuals but are nonetheless necessary or beneficial to society as a whole. This has been a historic and constitutional function of government.

Unfortunately, the University of Missouri is being managed largely as a private institution, even though about half its non-medical funding comes from state and federal sources. Priority in student recruiting is given to affluent students who can afford high and rising tuition rates. Priority in university research is given to patentable discoveries that can generate corporate profits and thus attract corporate funding.

Economic development has been added to teaching, research and extension as the “fourth mission” of the university. No wonder the editor of the Missourian refers to MU as the “biggest company in town” (Dec. 22). Missouri taxpayers are understandably reluctant to invest more tax dollars in higher education while private individuals and corporations reap an ever-growing share of the returns from their current public investment.

Perhaps it’s time to clearly separate the private and public functions of the University of Missouri System, starting with MU. Let the private MU operate with private tuition and corporate funding and accept the necessity of generating enough private benefits to offset the full costs of its teaching and research programs. Let the public MU operate solely with public funds and focus its programs solely on doing those things for which the private benefits are either absent or inadequate to ensure legitimately public benefits.

The new public MU might be half as large as the current MU, but taxpayers could be assured their tax dollars were being spent to serve the public good, rather than to promote private or corporate interests. The new private MU could then justify hiring a corporate CEO to lead it to higher and greater things while competing on a level playing field with other private universities. The public MU would then be free to hire a public administrator to work with its faculty, students and the citizens of Missouri to develop a truly great public University of Missouri.

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Ellis Smith January 2, 2008 | 12:14 p.m.

Would the MU Athletic Department become part of public MU or part of private MU? Since soliciting and obtaining funding from a national brewer and purveyor of alcoholic beverages would appear to "promote private or corporate interests" one would assume that the Athletic Department would be part of private MU. Surely it cannot be part of BOTH! If we're going to have a "separation," let's have a clean one.

(Report Comment)
Kevin Gamble January 4, 2008 | 11:18 a.m.

Thanks to Dr. Ikerd for this insightful commentary. Here and in his other writings, he speaks at a conceptual level that we seem to have forgotten as a society, to our detriment.

In the rush to find a high-profile, business-friendly president--and the celebrity-gossip approach our local media took to reporting it--we failed to ask the fundamental questions being asked here.

It's vital that we not just let all of our societal institutions run on auto-pilot and never stop to ask: what are they for? And who do they serve?

(Report Comment)

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