The University of Missouri’s Columbia campus sits at a critical juncture. Budget cuts, compounded by declining enrollment and bad publicity, have chipped away at the state’s most high-profile public university.
In retrospect, spring 2017 could be viewed as the inflection point that led to a precipitous decline at MU. But the state and the school still have an opportunity to change course.
The esteemed campus has struggled with a tangle of thorny challenges. MU has been beset with reduced budgets, drops in enrollment, negative national attention stemming from concerns about its racial climate and misguided Missouri legislators who fail to grasp higher education’s importance to the region’s economic stability.
That’s a complicated web for MU to navigate. And it’s imperative that higher education has the support of the legislature as university leaders work to stabilize and contend with an array of issues.
This week, Interim Chancellor Garnett Stokes announced plans to slash up to 400 jobs. Most will be open positions that will remain unfilled. Others will be eliminated through attrition, and the remaining 100 will be layoffs.
Morale understandably has taken a hit.
The job reductions are a result of a $55 million cut to MU’s budget and come as the campus is predicting a second year of declining freshman enrollment. All of the state’s universities are absorbing a 6.58 percent decline in state funding.
A proposal to raise MU’s tuition by 2.1 percent has been made, an attempt to recover lost funds. It’s a risk, though, as higher costs could lead people to seek a less expensive education elsewhere.
Some will wrongly place too much blame for the current problems on the student protests that disrupted MU in the fall of 2015. Led by African-American students upset with racial incidents and a general feeling of intolerance, the sit-ins drew national headlines. The turmoil resulted in the resignations of MU System President Tim Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin.
Some legislators were quick to label the protests the tantrums of easily offended snowflakes, a symptom of a campus gone too liberal. The truth was far more complicated, though.
Mizzou is not alone in many of its struggles. Demographic shifts mean fewer high school seniors to recruit. Concerns about racial inclusion echo elsewhere, and public research universities face disproportionate losses in state funding nationally.
But the Tigers have encountered more than their fair share of roadblocks in recent years. Bolstering the Columbia campus is crucial work that must continue to ensure that it remains a flagship institution for Missouri.