Guest Commentary

Missouri has too many public universities. It must close campuses

With a state the size of Missouri, there is simply no justification for having 13 public (supported by state tax) four-year colleges and universities.
With a state the size of Missouri, there is simply no justification for having 13 public (supported by state tax) four-year colleges and universities. File photo

Last May, University of Missouri Provost Garnett S. Stokes announced the necessity of $41 million in cuts to recurring MU budgets because of declining enrollments and legislative funding reductions. To specifically address this deficit, she appointed a task force to conduct a comprehensive review of all curricula and to make recommendations for programs to be discontinued or consolidated. Compounding the budget problem, Gov. Eric Greitens recently proposed a budget for next year that calls for an additional $43 million in cuts across the UM system. MU’s proportionate share of that new cut can be expected to be $20 million, making its total expected annual budget deficit $61 million.

After six months of work, the task force report is now available. Unfortunately, their recommendations — even if fully adopted — will not produce a significant impact on MU’s budget deficit.

The report identifies 27 graduate-level degree programs and certificates that should be eliminated because of zero or near zero enrollments. Twelve other areas of graduate level education are recommended for inactivation because of small (but above zero) enrollments. After discussion, it was decided that undergraduate programs would not be considered for elimination or consolidation. Analysis of whether specific bachelor degree majors were sufficiently contributing to the overall mission of the university would await some future “more extensive review” conducted by some future committee. Punt.

My crude back-of-the-envelope estimate is that salary and benefit savings resulting from the task force’s report will make only a $1.1 million dent in the annual $61 million shortfall. Unfortunately, meaningful strategic cuts in universities are enormously difficult — and therefore avoided — because an announced cut to a specific program elicits tremendous political pressure on the institution from students, alumni, faculty and legislators.

There is an even larger problem that no one wishes to acknowledge, much less debate. With a state the size of Missouri, there is simply no justification for having 13 public (supported by state tax) four-year colleges and universities — the four campuses in the UM System: The University of Missouri in Columbia, The University of Missouri-St. Louis, The University of Missouri-Kansas City and Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, and the nine additional public colleges scattered around the state. That number of faculties, staff, physical facilities, administrators and overhead is unsustainable in the current environment. The closure of entire campuses is required.

Missouri owes its residents — especially its children — an MU institution that can continue to provide an extraordinary, first-class education now and for years to come. Additionally, the state needs the economic engine that MU’s research and its extension services provide. However, the state does not need the extensive duplication in four-year degree programs that now exists across the 13 institutions.

The same problem may exist in Kansas. With a population about half of that of Missouri’s, it is quite difficult to justify its six state funded universities. Perhaps the model to emulate is found in our northern neighbor, Iowa. With a population about the same as Kansas, it has three state-supported universities. Moreover, its flagship, the University of Iowa, serves its state as a top 100 university as rated by U.S. News and World Report. Neither MU nor KU can claim that distinction.

If, as I have argued, there are significant forces preventing meaningful surgical changes within a single campus, there are even larger political forces making each institution a sacred cow that prevents even the discussion of its elimination. However, all trends suggest that closing campuses will inevitably be a part of our state’s future. Since 2011, the U.S. has seen the number of public colleges and universities decline by 30. Through closure or merger, Georgia has taken the nation’s lead in this trend in downsizing its 14 colleges to seven. Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Oregon are considering similar actions.

Missourians and their legislative representatives need to have some uncomfortable discussions. The state desperately needs a healthy MU that can fulfill its comprehensive, multifaceted land-grant mission given to it by the state in 1839 and reaffirmed by the federal Morrill Act of 1862. I’m not sure there is such a compelling need for each and every one of Missouri’s other 12 four-year colleges and universities.

Dr. Art Jago is professor emeritus of management at the Trulaske College of Business at the University of Missouri in Columbia. He is a former chair of the department of management and a former member of the executive committee of the MU Faculty Council.