Guest Commentary

Increased funding of Missouri universities is an investment in the future

Brady Deaton, former chancellor and CEO of the University of Missouri
Brady Deaton, former chancellor and CEO of the University of Missouri

Throughout my 15-year tenure as provost and chancellor of the University of Missouri, I welcomed every opportunity to champion the notion that a great university is a global university — one that advances the nation through prepared minds, new research discoveries and innovations that drive our global economy and global workforce. Higher education, so vital to the economic and diplomatic success of our country, now faces an imminent and potentially devastating funding crisis. And it’s time for us all to take action.

My greatest moments came when faculty and students, exploring the frontiers of knowledge in every discipline, achieved breakthroughs in basic understanding and application of that knowledge. They expanded our understanding of the universe, addressing global health, food and nutrition crises. Others created new businesses and jobs never dreamed of before. The heralded research of MU’s 2018 Nobel laureate in chemistry, Professor George Smith, is a powerful example of achievements that contributed to improved health of people around the world.

Indeed, the nation’s research universities transformed the world in the post-World War II era, as the proliferating “web of knowledge” changed how we work, play, communicate and explore the world. Year after year, across the country, research and land-grant universities yield our states, and ultimately our country, a higher return on investment than perhaps any other state expenditure. The obvious results are material and socioeconomic opportunities never before realized.

Yet state support for public research and land-grant universities is much lower than it was a few decades ago. According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, from 2008 to 2013, states cut support to the median public research university by 26 percent in response to the Great Recession. The costs of running a university are reflected in rising tuition, which leads to rising public concern about the cost of education. To redress the growing crisis, we desperately need more voices of support among our elected representatives at the state and federal levels to advocate for increased funding to meet current shortfalls and seize future opportunities. A failure to act may prove fatal to some universities.

A key challenge of higher education is to equip students with the knowledge, analytical thinking and open-mindedness to meet the challenge of today’s jobs, even as they must be ready for the jobs yet to be created. Indeed, the rate of change in new and innovative jobs today likely exceeds any period in our history

Consider the impressive job-creating power of major research universities. In Missouri alone, the University Business Extension Program is responsible for creating or retaining over 29,000 jobs between 2015 and 2017. In addition, external research funding and the new knowledge that leads to general entrepreneurial efforts bring more money into the state, directly and indirectly, than the state gives MU.

Leaders of research universities and national associations of higher education are raising their voices to warn of the real dangers in the decline of university funding. Now they need a groundswell of support from citizens and students at large to gain the critical headway with state legislatures to provide adequate funding to keep this “knowledge engine” running.

Our global research universities are poised as never before to improve the quality of life and livelihood for the nation, and to be leaders in basic and applied research to guarantee our conituned well-being. To realize this potential, all of us across the social and political spectrum must insist on the funding necessary to meet the promise of higher education — one that we have always invested in since the nation’s founding.

The first step? Encourage greater public understanding of these relationships. That understanding will encourage action by our state legislators, leaders in Congress and our trade organizations. We must protect this irreplaceable asset of research and land-grant universities.

Brady J. Deaton is former chancellor and chief executive officer of the University of Missouri in 2004. He joined the MU faculty in 1989, and was appointed chief of staff in the Office of the Chancellor in 1993, deputy chancellor in 1997, and provost in 1998. He served as MU’s chancellor from 2004 to 2013, and during that time was designated chairman of the Board for International Food and Agriculture Development by President Barack Obama. Deaton retired in 2013, and leads the new Brady and Anne Deaton Institute for University Leadership in International Development.