JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Two bills are facing staunch opposition from the University of Missouri system because university officials say it may put further strain on already limited state resources.
HB 2622 from Rep. Kevin Austin, R-Springfield, and SB 1088 from Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, would allow allow state institutions of higher education to offer doctoral and professional degree programs once approved by the Coordinating Board of Higher Education (CBHE). Currently, the University of Missouri system schools are the only public universities that can offer such programs, with a handful of exceptions, and many state schools outside the system fear it holds too much sway over whether or not other schools cannot.
Schmitt said the legislation would allow schools to successfully specialize, as his alma mater, Truman State University, did.
“This bill is not an attempt to make every university all things to everybody, but this bill would lift some of the barriers to allow universities to determine who they want to be,” Schmitt said.
“We have to move away from the more centralized system that we have right now and move to a more decentralized system,” Austin agreed. “I think it will remove the barriers these institutions face as they have new creative ideas to meet these challenges.”
University leaders from Southeast Missouri State University, Missouri State University, Missouri Western Missouri State University and Central Missouri State University all testified in favor of the legislation.
“If SEMO is to be a regional comprehensive university… we should have the ability within reason to offer the degree programs we know will help meet those needs,” said Carlos Vargas, the president of SEMO.
Smart said the intention of the legislation was not to hurt the state’s flagship university system.
“We do not want anything to diminish the University of Missouri,” said Cliff Smart, the president of Missouri State University. “We don’t think this bill changes their status at all.”
While both Schmitt and Austin also stressed in their separate hearings that the legislation would not damage the University of Missouri. Steve Graham, a vice president of academic affairs for the UM system, noted that costly, postgraduate programs across the board could result in expensive redundancies that would stretch too few dollars across the state.
“Our concern at this point is about the doctoral and professional degree programs which are quite expensive,” Graham said, He added that because of costs for faculty and other certain resources, those programs “can cost as much as 18 to 22 times as expensive as an undergraduate degree program.”
In the House hearing, Rep. Donna Lichtenegger feared that the dispersal of resources could lead to Mizzou losing its American Association of Universities (AAU) rating, a coveted rating for research universities around the country. MU is the only public AAU university in the state, though rumors have swirled that its ranking, which is determined based on the amount of research and citations, within the organization has dropped to the point it may soon be forced out. The University of Nebraska lost its AAU status in 2011.
“The reason we have these programs at MU is because of the research money and the grant money we receive with the programs we have right now,” Lichtenegger said. “If those programs go away it hurts the state… There’s an enormous amount that can happen, and nobody in this state will have status at all, and the economy would be extremely hurt, and if you don’t believe what I’m saying go to Lincoln, NE.”
Washington University in St. Louis is the only other university in the state with AAU status, but it is a private university.
Rep. Steve Cookson, the House Higher Education Committee Chair, said he understood the plight of schools that may feel left by the wayside.
“Coming from an area that is very much detached from the rest of the state, I think it’s very important we look at this,” he said. “I don’t think any one part of the state has a monopoly on intelligence, knowledge and research.”