Guest Commentary

UMKC downtown arts conservatory isn’t dead yet

Greitens last summer defended his veto of bonds for the planned UMKC arts conservatory

In a visit to Kansas City last summer, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens defended his veto of a bill to provide $48 millions in bonds for the construction of a new UMKC art campus.
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In a visit to Kansas City last summer, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens defended his veto of a bill to provide $48 millions in bonds for the construction of a new UMKC art campus.

To paraphrase a famous quote, reports of the death of our UMKC downtown conservatory project are greatly exaggerated.

It is hardly a secret that we have been facing headwinds since we lost a state funding match this past summer. But UMKC and our array of civic and community partners have not been deterred. We recognize how vital this project is to our arts community and to economic development in our urban core. That’s why it has been one of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce’s “Big 5” priorities from the outset.

Together, we will make this happen.

We have been hard at work with renewed energy as we develop new ideas on how we might accomplish the project. Rest assured, it continues to move forward. Expect word on those new developments soon.

As we move forward, however, it is also appropriate to take a step back and look at the bigger picture of the state of UMKC, the University of Missouri System and higher education in Kansas City and in Missouri. It is time for a reckoning. Over the next few weeks and months, we need to make fundamental decisions about our future — for our own sake, and even more so for the sake of our children and grandchildren.

The fate of the new conservatory does not exist in a vacuum. It is a key component in a bigger picture that includes our community’s ability to support the growth of our burgeoning engineering and technology sector, our ability to compete for major employers such as Amazon and Apple, our support for entrepreneurship, the vital task of improving urban education, and maintaining the quality of life that has thrust our community into a favorable national spotlight in recent years.

We have reached a crossroads. Do we continue to invest in growth? Or do we limit ourselves to stagnation and decline?

Several observers have pointed to declining public support for higher education as a key factor in Amazon’s recent decision not to include Kansas City or Missouri in its list of finalist sites for a new headquarters. That decline is real, and it has severe impacts.

Beyond the loss of the $48 million state match for the conservatory, budget cuts from the state over the past three years amount to $12.6 million for UMKC and $70.6 million for the university system. These cuts come after more than a decade of flat state appropriations that did not account for either inflation or enrollment growth.

At UMKC and in the University of Missouri System, we know we have room to improve, and we are doing our part. We are reviewing our academic portfolio to make sure we are providing quality programs at the lowest possible cost, and we are reconfiguring administrative operations to improve efficiency wherever possible. We have many other projects under way aimed at securing our future.

We are doing the painful work necessary to be better stewards of this public research university that is so critical to the economy and quality of life in the greater Kansas City region. This community must recognize, however, that we can’t continue to drain resources from UMKC and higher education and expect a positive future for Kansas Citians and greatness for our city and state.

If our leaders want to deliver on promises of a better future, they must realize that higher education is not an expense, but an investment — the only investment they can make that will deliver better jobs, health, growth and progress.

We greatly appreciate the strong support we have enjoyed from our friends in the General Assembly on this project and others. They need allies in their ranks, and a show of support from the public, for that support to continue. If we are to have any hope of achieving the future to which we say we aspire, we must resolve to make that investment.

Barbara A. Bichelmeyer is the interim chancellor and provost of UMKC. She co-authored this with Mun Choi, president of the University of Missouri System.