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MU flagship’s faltering clout

MU flagship’s faltering clout

Term limits, regionalism, research fight tearing away Columbia’s political status.

House Speaker Pro Tem Carl Bearden’s remarks signified an astonishing change in Missouri’s historic stance on higher education.

The comments came after a Democratic Senate filibuster in March stalled Gov. Matt Blunt’s proposal to sell off Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority assets to finance a stalled college building program. Republican lawmakers began searching for items to transfer out of the University of Missouri, mainly its Columbia campus.

Bearden, a St. Charles Republican and the No. 2 official in the House, said, “If you are not going to be part of the solution and remain a part of the problem, there should be no reward for you.”

His primary target was Democratic Sen. Chuck Graham, the assistant minority leader from Columbia who helped lead the filibuster. Graham, a longtime advocate for people with disabilities, had revolted against Blunt’s decision to drop life science projects from the $335 million construction package. Excluded were an $88 million health sciences research center and $2 million life sciences business incubator at the Columbia campus.

Although the governor in 2006 sold his plan as stimulation for biotech growth in the state—and continuation of more than a decade of Missouri’s economic development focus—Blunt began trying to mollify anti-abortion forces that were still flinching from a statewide electoral defeat last fall on stem-cell research and lobbying against his plan. Stem-cell research and spin-off businesses had been among the likely focuses of MU projects.

The “senator from Boone” historically has safeguarded the Columbia campus and its programs, along with the House delegation from the county.
But they have seldom seemed so isolated.

Ten, 15 or 25 years ago, almost every legislator—not just locals—had vested interests in promoting the Columbia campus because it had been nurtured since 1839 as the premier research, land grant and post-graduate teaching university of the Missouri public higher education system.

Former Gov. Roger Wilson of Columbia occupied Graham’s spot in the Senate from 1979 to 1993 and headed the chamber’s appropriations committee.
“The university has not changed, but we’ve seen a change in the attitude in Jefferson City. Because we don’t fund higher education adequately, they feel they have to cannibalize each other. We have to have curators, a governor and House and Senate leaders who are more statesmanlike. I’ve never seen such an attitude,” Wilson said. “It’s just as wrong as it can be.”

What has changed? Interviews with more than two dozen legislators, other public officials, university administrators, media and Columbia campus boosters identified about a half dozen main causes:

• The decimation of experienced legislators by term limits that took effect in 2002. In addition, there are now far fewer MU graduates in the General Assembly, and none is in a House leadership position.

• The creation of another statewide university system based in Springfield. The expanded role and the name change, to Missouri State University, created further confusion about the missions of Columbia and its sister campuses.

• Opposition from the state’s potent anti-abortion movement over embryonic stem-cell research, which could complicate the university’s prospects for growth for years. Only MU has public medical schools than can support stem-cell research.

• The Republican takeover of the Missouri legislature in 2002 and emergence of Columbia legislators as Democratic leaders. The developments have left the MU campuses as prime blue islands in a vast sea of political red, subject to bitter partisanship. All four MU campuses lie in Senate districts represented by Democrats. The city of Columbia itself often is viewed as an oasis for liberalism and lifestyles that veer from the outstate norm.

• Weakened leadership by MU System President Elson Floyd that has found MU accommodating, rather than fighting, public policy changes that undermine its role in state higher education and threaten its constitutional autonomy.

Term limits wipes out ranks of experienced legislators

Term limits, which had their first statewide effects in 2002 elections, eliminated experienced legislators who understood and shielded the Columbia campus and its mission.

Term limits disqualified 75, or almost half, of the 163 House members in 2002. Those lawmakers had sat through at least eight years, or four terms, of appropriation and policy battles that educated them about the MU system and the unique role of the Columbia campus. Many had served almost four decades, or since the inception of the MU system. Combined with other turnover, 91 members, or 56 percent, of the House had no legislative experience when the 2003 session began.

The impact on the Senate was less immediate because members serve staggered four-year terms. But by January 2005, 19 of 36 senators had been disqualified; the seven forced out in the 2004 elections had a combined 130 years of service.

The term-limit process will resume yet again in 2010 when those House members elected in 2002 exhaust their eligibility.

“Because of term limits, legislators don’t understand the historic role of the university,” said Rep. Jeff Harris, the House minority leader from Columbia. “In 2010, we’ll have a whole new set of legislators who don’t know what it means to be an AAU research institution. All the universities in the state tend to be viewed as having the same mission.”

Since 1908, the Columbia campus has belonged to the now-62-member American Association of Universities (AAU), the pre-eminent research universities in the U.S.

Quipped Graham: “Down here, legislators think AAU stands for Amateur Athletic Union.”

Recalled former MU curator Ed Turner of Chillicothe, one-time chief of staff for the late Congressman Jerry Litton: “I voted for term limits. It was the worst vote I ever cast. Legislators have to have a sense of history to make intelligent decisions. It’s more than dangerous” to have legislators with little broad sense of public policy and services. “It’s a crisis situation right now.”

Many legislators simply don’t understand that Missouri long ago decided that it couldn’t afford duplicate faculty and facilities, and it consolidated professional and most graduate education and research at MU – a position that broke down in 2005 when the legislature created Missouri State University in Springfield. Still more don’t understand the costs of supporting advanced education and research.

While new legislators were relatively unfamiliar with MU, unless they were graduates, they intimately knew their local four-year regional institutions—known as teachers colleges until 35 years ago—and junior colleges.
Said Graham: “There are lots of people in the legislature who don’t understand the difference between their community college and the University” of Missouri. “Worse yet, they don’t care.”

David Shorr—vice chair of the Mizzou Flagship Council, former state Department of Natural Resources director and a Jefferson City attorney—squarely points at term limits for fueling the short-term vision of legislators and reducing their historical perspective.

“There is absolutely no question that term limits have undermined statesmanship in the General Assembly and enhanced the regionalism,” Shorr said.

Name change for Missouri State further muddies the mission of MU
Though often dismissed as more symbol than threat when it occurred in early 2005, the name change for the old Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield helped further muddle legislative and public understanding of the state higher education system.

The new moniker for Southwest actually was among many that occurred.
All the regional schools had been raised from teachers colleges to universities in 1972. Two former junior colleges in Joplin and St. Joseph became four-year state universities. Northeast Missouri State gained official designation as Missouri’s statewide liberal arts and sciences institution in 1985 and became Truman State in 1996. Southwest gained a statewide role as Missouri’s “public affairs” university in 1996. Even MU contemplated swallowing Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville.

But Southwest longed for status for its Division I athletic programs, rebelled at its directional name and wanted to more fully serve its growing population base in the state’s third-largest metropolitan area. Three of the past four governors had called Springfield home, and Blunt insisted on the name change when he took office.

The question became for the public and the flock of new legislators: When is one “university” – which began crowding public and private education from border to border—more special than another university? Under what circumstances does any institution deserve special consideration when, in this decade, Missouri has been unable to match the funding it originally approved for higher education six years ago in 2001, before the state’s economy bottomed out?

The old SMSU – with no professional schools and limited graduate and research programs – could hardly claim parity with the MU system. “You have an extremely aggressive Southwest Missouri contingent, primarily businesspeople, who simply wanted a higher profile for the Springfield campus,” Wilson recalled.

Columbia’s Graham himself, while chairing an appropriations committee as a House member, had initiated a major funding boost for the Springfield school, which long had suffered from low per-student funding.

But with its brand-new name, Missouri State has begun eying the items that grace a true university – with considerable federal help when Republicans controlled Congress.

The campus has finally adopted selective admissions standards for its undergraduates.

U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, the governor’s father who served as majority leader in the past Congress, arrange more than $50 million in federal funds that are helping transform an old seven-story feed mill in the Jordan Valley area north of campus into a biomedical, engineering and life science research center, which Missouri State will open in April. The University of Missouri-Rolla will grant engineering degrees through the research facility. Missouri State found considerable financial support from the U.S. Department of Defense that the elder Blunt was able to steer to Springfield.

The Republican takeover and general antipathy toward Columbia
Legislative Republicans have little use for “Planet Boone,” as one MU official puts it, and Columbia’s isolation in the halls of power became concrete when Republicans took advantage of term limits and redistricting to gain solid majorities in the legislature in 2002.

In many ways, the split is reminiscent of the Vietnam War years, when Columbia persistently came to blows with old-line, pro-war Democratic Congressman Dick Ichord. Today, socially conservative Republicans take exception to the city and its liberal image.

“It’s as though we’re all a bunch of Marxists,” said Jim Sterling, a former curator and Bolivar newspaper publisher who is now on the MU School of Journalism faculty. He recently wore a Groucho mask and took cigars to an event because “we’re really Groucho Marxists—or Harpo Marxists.”

The changeover in the General Assembly since the 2002 elections left an odd void of MU graduates in the General Assembly. MU figures show the number of House members who attended or graduated the four university campuses fell from 40 in 2005 to 25 this year. In the Senate, the totals fell from 18, or more than a majority, to 13.

This year, not a single one of the 13 members of the House Democratic and Republican leadership graduated from or attended the university.
On the Senate side, only Majority Leader Charlie Shields of St. Joseph and Republican Caucus Chair Chris Koster of Harrisonville are UMC graduates in the 10 leadership posts. On the Democratic side, only caucus secretary Yvonne Wilson – who fills a largely ceremonial post—has an MU degree, from the Kansas City campus.

Boosters point to Shields, who has two degrees and met his wife on the Columbia campus, as an example of an alumnus who acts against the best interests of his alma mater. He has been among the leaders in backing the governor’s construction plan that strips out life science projects from MU.
But more to the point, Sen. Chuck Gross, a St. Charles Republican and dual degree-holder from the Columbia campus, took the lead on that front after Columbia voters passed a medical marijuana ordinance and reduced penalties for city violations of possession ordinances. He responded by introducing unsuccessful legislation in 2005 that would have prohibited state and regional athletic championship events in Columbia—and, inadvertently, would have banned local high schools from playing in the city.

The Republican majorities in the General Assembly also have become identified closely with private higher education, principally smaller four-year institutions, largely because Bearden—a fundraising official with private Lindenwood University in St. Charles—has spearheaded attempts to make state dollars follow students to private schools rather than investing in public institutions.

“I firmly believe that the persons in charge, in the House in particular, have a bias against public education, certainly public higher education,” said Harris, the Columbia Democrat. “The University of Missouri is the crown jewel of public higher education in Missouri – so it’s more likely the target” of House attempts to undermine its position.

The House position behind private education was so strong in 2006 that the chamber defeated Blunt’s first attempt to pass his building program by holding out for scholarship changes – some called them “vouchers” — that favored private institutions, which Bearden spearheaded.

The changeover in 2002 also left the bulk of Columbia’s legislative delegation in a heavily outnumbered minority of Democrats in the House and Senate.

Unlike the obstacles and charges Graham has faced, Wilson recalled a different world in the Senate, when it was regarded and regarded itself as bipartisan, even nonpartisan. He recounted the day when the late Republican Sen. Dick Webster of Joplin came to visit him – when Wilson chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee — because a theatre building at Missouri Southern State University there had burned.

“We took the money out of planning for Ellis Library [renovations in Columbia] and used it to replace that building,” said Wilson, until recently chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party.

The Columbia Business Times tried repeatedly, without success, to get comment from Rep. Ed Robb, the Columbia Republican who is vice chair of the House Budget Committee.

A basketball fiasco weakens Floyd

Elson Floyd’s early tenure at Missouri was marked by a sweeping gesture of change: a merger with Northwest Missouri State that would have created a fifth MU campus and expanded MU’s presence in the state. That attempt died after the legislature wouldn’t advance plans for the merger.

But he still gained credit for a vision of building MU and steering it through rocky financial times that marked Gov. Bob Holden’s term in office. Oceans of red ink that were consuming the university’s Columbia hospital turned into a surplus, for example, after a major overhaul.

But those high marks eroded after an embarrassing episode involving former basketball player Ricky Clemons and other public relations disasters, culminating with the messy firing of basketball coach Quin Snyder and near-involvement of the MU board of curators in a brief move to terminate Columbia athletic director Mike Alden.

In brief, the Clemons episode began when the basketball player, on probation for assaulting his girlfriend and under halfway-house confinement, overturned an ATV at Floyd’s presidential home on the Fourth of July and was jailed for violating his probation.

Then Floyd’s wife, lured into the mix by an athletic official’s wife, had jailhouse conversations with Clemons that were taped and later were made public. She made race-related remarks that stunned much of Missouri and embarrassed alumni coast to coast.

Snyder’s once-golden career as head Columbia basketball coach quickly turned sour, and his termination became daily fodder for ESPN. On the day the Columbia campus announced his replacement, the MU board met to consider possibly replacing Alden, who was blamed for mishandling Snyder’s ouster but survived.

Floyd’s reputation at MU took a downturn along with those of the curators. Particularly, former curators and Columbia campus boosters were dismayed as:

• The board took an unusual role in Columbia campus athletic affairs. Turner, the former Chillicothe curator, called the board’s involvement “a very big gross error” that never should have been placed on its agenda—a problem he laid at the feet of Floyd and a handful of curators. “The ideal system president would say, ‘You guys are making a mistake,’” Turner said, and Floyd either didn’t say that or didn’t convince them.

• Floyd and the curators acquiesced to the name change of Southwest Missouri State with potentially transitory limits on that new university’s growth.

• Floyd and the curators accommodated almost every twist and turn as Blunt has attempted to salvage his college building program. That included agreeing to not conduct any stem-cell research in the life science center.
Turner—and several other former curators and boosters—contend that Floyd’s considerable communications skills have produced little for MU in recent years, and Blunt’s early appointments as curators yielded discord and damage to MU’s long-term interests. “They’ve taken the position that if you put a gun to our head, we’ll cave,” Turner said.

Floyd, though, had little choice except working with the new governor’s choices as curators.

Former curators and boosters found Blunt’s first group of three appointees to the board particularly troublesome – for Floyd and the university. They are much more sanguine about the second group of three – including the choice of Warren Erdman, a protégé of U.S. Sen. Kit Bond.

Sean McGinnis, a Springfield attorney, served on the board from 1999 to 2005, and he later was offered a university legal post by Floyd – only to have Blunt’s curator picks nix the plan. Those close ties no longer exist.
“I would agree that Dr. Floyd has great skills as a communicator,” McGinnis said, “but I don’t know why he has not been a forceful advocate for the university. I am disappointed that he has taken the approach of appeasing the political interests in Jefferson City rather than working for the long-term interests of the university.”

McGinnis said Floyd “may feel damaged” by the hangover from the Clemens episode and may be reluctant to make a statement—and Graham has no doubts.
“I think the incident changed Elson. He was never the same leader he had been. He never led with the same strength as when he first came to campus,” Graham said.

Turner, McGinnis and Graham—among others—all have been disappointed that Floyd and the curators did not take a forceful public stance against the negative aspects of the construction package Blunt proposed. The MOHELA deal has been wrapped into legislation that may conflict with MU’s constitutional autonomy, faculty academic freedoms on research and the curators’ ability to set tuition.

The role of public advocacy has fallen to the Mizzou Flagship Council, the UMC Faculty Council and former curators of both parties.

Floyd was unavailable for comment. But Scott Charton, the university communications director, credited Floyd with “exceptional communications skills” that he “used tirelessly on behalf of MU (Columbia) and the other campuses… Missourians prefer to take their time considering new ideas. He tried to do a lot in a short time, such as the proposed merger with Northwest Missouri State University, which he still feels has merit.

“Editorials at the time marveled at his willingness to try new ideas, even at risk of failure – a fear that keeps some good ideas from even being floated in Missouri. In short, I think President Floyd might have slowed his pace for change, and indeed he adjusted his rhythms and rate of speed to embrace the Missouri Way.”

Despite the Clemons episode, Charton said he had never seen Floyd slacken his pace aggressively promoting MU and its programs. He added: “But some people couldn’t bring themselves to give any credit to Elson Floyd if he walked across the Missouri River with a cure for cancer in one hand and a Big 12 championship trophy in the other hand.”

The right-to-life movement runs head-on into MU

The anti-abortion movement in Missouri, which has spread from its original focus on the state Medicaid program and controls Republican majorities in the legislature, finally has lapped into university offerings and research. There, the University of Missouri faces special dangers, rather perversely, because of the protections it enjoys under the state constitution.

Only the curators can govern the university, and they can ignore most state laws that attempt to control it. But they cannot ignore the possible repercussions of funding cuts, despite the untested language in last fall’s Amendment 2 that prevents reductions in retaliation for stem-cell research.
Blunt, attempting to pacify anti-abortion forces, stripped out life sciences projects from all the MU campuses, but disturbed few programs at state higher education institutions that are subject to state law. Because no other public university has medical schools, only MU can easily support the kind of stem-cell research that the right-to-life movement calls embryonic murder.

When lawmakers and other public officials had toyed with language to block the use of the buildings for stem-cell research, Missouri Right-to-Life continued to oppose the program under the belief that MU, with its constitutional shield, would ignore a ban.

Besides Columbia, the Kansas City medical school is closely associated with the nearby Stowers Institute for Medical Research, whose founders funded the initiative movement that led to the successful stem-cell amendment.

Richard Mendenhall, who heads Re/Max Boone Realty and the Mizzou Flagship Council, foresees “bigger problems for the state of Missouri economically and a deep-seated problem for the university” if the state cannot resolve that growing conflict, which in March again bubbled under House debate on next year’s budget.

Wilson, long pro-choice on abortion issues, finds it incredible that the governor and Republican legislature have rushed to meet the right-to-life movement’s objections just after statewide voters approved stem-cell research last November. “It’s defiant of the public and simply punishment for the University of Missouri for wanting to carry out that research,” Wilson said.

“It’s an arrogance that I’ve never seen before.”

In some ways, striking at MU’s ability to erect buildings has more impact than attempting to slash its operating budget.

MU, once heavily dependent on state funding, has been weaning itself from public dollars for some time—a trend shared by flagship-dominated public institutions around the country.

In 2004, MU operations became more heavily dependent on student tuition and other funding sources than state appropriations for the first time. But university operations account for only 43 percent of MU financial activity, according to budget figures that Floyd has used around the state.

When all MU activities are considered, state appropriations account for a mere 17 percent of current total funding. “We are privatizing our state university” because of enormous tuition increases and the need to look to private sources for support, says Turner, the former curator, who laments the lack of state support and implications of that move.

The funding changes could have major implications for the medical campus at Columbia. Medical school officials had viewed the $88 million for the health sciences research money as “seed money” for an explosion of buildings on the southern edges of the main campus.

Now, the pending version of Blunt’s plan—currently in limbo in the Senate—would provide just $31 million for part of the cost of a new outpatient clinic for the Ellis Fischel State Cancer Hospital, but MU likely will need to look for private donors and federal dollars to build the research complex.

The change would delay progress on the medical complex, which currently has more than $400 million in projects on the drawing board, including a $180 million surgery tower; a $45 million orthopedic institute; a $26 million clinical support and education building; a $10 million institute for nano-and molecular medicine; and a $10 million biochemistry center.

Where do MU and the Columbia campus go from here?

Many obstacles to the current plight of MU and the Columbia campus are beyond its control.

Floyd is leaving as president, and any difficulties associated with him may vanish. As usual, the names of local favorites for his successor crop up. In December, The Washington Missourian—one of the most respected outstate newspapers—endorsed Wilson for the presidency. “Some of us are growing a bit tired of bringing in an ‘outsider’ as president of the MU system who has to spend the first year or two finding his way around the state and meeting alums,” the editorial said.

Mayor Francis Slay of St. Louis soon added his endorsement.

Wilson, however, is pursuing business interests after sacrificing considerable time in recent years to his work for the Democratic Party.
Others have floated the name Kit Bond and suggested he would resign from the U.S. Senate for the job, but he dismissed the idea. Although Bond is a Princeton and University of Virginia graduate, his father, Art Bond, played football for MU, and the senator has worked diligently to steer federal dollars to the campus.

Beyond that, one of the most enterprising developments for Columbia emerged in December 2005 when the Mizzou Flagship Council was formed. Unlike the other MU campuses, Missouri State and Southeast Missouri State, the Columbia campus had no private advocacy group to make its case and educate lawmakers about its importance.

Noted Harris, the Columbia lawmaker: “The Flagship Council can say what the university can’t afford to.”

Many boosters maintain that system-wide administrators have discouraged Columbia campus officials from pressing their case in Jefferson City. Campus-based lobbyists have been centralized in the university administration. “The official voice of the university is so tied down by University Hall that you can’t say what you want,” said Sterling, the former curator and newspaper publisher who sits on the new council’s board.
Attorney Shorr, the Flagship Council vice chair, said organizers council have been distracted for two years by attention to Blunt’s building plan, so growth has proceeded slowly. Former curator Turner, another council board member, calls the project “an infant.”

The council has retained an executive director – Dianne Drainer, a former Missouri Public Service Commission member who also heads the city’s “visioning” project – and hired three lobbyists in Jefferson City: Tom Rackers, the capital city’s former mayor; John Bardgett, son of a former Supreme Court judge; and Terry Schleimeier, a Capitol fixture who lives in Columbia and lobbies for the city.

Council membership now hovers around 200 members. Fees range from $100 to $10,000 – for an “admiral” – but Drainer says she’s added members for as little as $50.

Asked about membership goals, Drainer says she’s concentrated, somewhat fancifully, on “1839,” or the year when MU was established in Columbia.
Shorr said the council plans to organize a network of district representatives so legislators have regular contacts with alumni, particularly on pressing issues, and the council wants close relations with the Mizzou Alumni Association and Mizzou Legislative Network. Virtually all sizable trade, professional and other interest groups have similar structures.

The alumni association has endorsed the governor’s building program in principle but shares the council’s objections to features such as the proposed limits on the curators’ ability to set tuition and fees and restrictions on stem-cell research.

The council also wants to create nine congressional district units that can help influence the selection of MU curators, who must represent each of the districts. Shorr said the council recently was gratified when Warren Erdman asked to meet with the members after he was appointed to the curators.
When it was organized, the council’s leadership emphasized that it would organize a high-powered political action committee to help elect legislators who shared the Columbia campus’s goals. But recent filings indicate that the group—which could also create dedicated opponents—has raised only scattered donations.

Wilson trusts recent events will awaken the “sleeping giant” of the Columbia campus. “If the current scene remains the same, MU will have to become a grizzled, toughened, mean and nasty political infighter. It might be the awakening of a political giant,” he said.

From the standpoint of legislators, Graham has one principal change he’d like to see – the appointment of longtime lobbyist Jim Snider to replace his boss, Steve Knorr, as new vice president for governmental relations. Floyd had elevated Knorr, a former aide to GOP Sens. Bond and John Danforth, from a federal relations post with the university after Republicans took control of the legislature.

Graham at one time defended Knorr when he was attacked by former state Sen. Ken Jacob, but the relationship soured after Blunt’s construction plans unfolded and MU continued to back them. “Knorr understands Washington,” Graham said, “but he doesn’t understand Jefferson City. He knows K Street, but not High Street.”

Knorr, however, has support on the Democratic side from lawmakers like Harris although he acknowledges that “you’re going to hear a different story from others.”

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