JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — When Governor Jay Nixon appointed his opponent in his first successful statewide office to the University of Missouri System Board of Curators, it left many scratching their heads, but in short order David Steelman is already proving to be an asset to the university.
Steelman, one of Missouri’s leading statesmen, has held numerous positions throughout state government including minority leader in the state House of Representatives, and Republican nominee for Attorney General in 1992.
In his first weeks as a curator, Steelman has formed a favorable opinion on the management of the university system.
“The first thing I’ve come to appreciate is the experienced dedicated management running the system,” Steelman said. “We have a strong leadership team here”.
But one area of concern for Steelman is the size of the university’s endowment. In 2014, the university’s endowment, system-wide, was about $1.44 billion, according to National Association of College and University Business Officers. That number isn’t high enough to be as competitive as he’d like.
“Our fundraising needs more energy and we have to have a focus on growing the system’s endowment,” Steelman said. “It’s become kind of fashionable to say that we’re not getting enough money from the state. I disagree to an extent. I think the legislature and the governor have treated the university very fairly. Fundraising is an art and a science. We have to get better and getting our own endowment to grow.”
The UM System’s $1.44 billion endowment may sound massive, but compared to schools around the country, the number is good, not great. The University of Kansas has a $1.47 billion endowment after 2014 fundraising for the school was the seventh consecutive record-breaking year. The University of Illinois boasts a $2.27 billion endowment. None of those numbers look impressive when compared to the nation’s leading universities. Harvard University has a mind-numbing $35 billion endowment, so large that they, along with several other Ivy League schools, say they could afford to run their entire university for more than one year completely tuition free.
“It’s absolutely critical for competing for the best and brightest,” Steelman said. “Now that’s not to say that I don’t think we’re excellent at trying to provide the best and brightest with a lot. I think we are. But we are not competitive enough with scholarships and financial aide.”
Steelman said he’d learned a great deal about the system in a short period of time, particularly in the area of research. As the state’s largest school system, UM system schools lead the Show-Me state in a wide variety of research topics. While The University of Missouri System is known nationwide for an advanced plant sciences research department, other academic departments are bulking up their research as well, a move Steelman largely credited to Hank Foley, Senior Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Studies at Mizzou.
“I remember meeting with the Dean of the Law School and talking about how I wanted us to get ahead on things like intellectual property rights and entrepreneurial activity only to find that they were very much ahead of the curve,” Steelman said.
Not long before this conversation, Foley had been “instrumental” in opening an intellectual property clinic through the Mizzou Law School.
Steelman also credited the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla for leading the charge as a science-based university that has seen major student growth in the past several years. The average ACT score of a Missouri S&T student is 29, well above the state average.
“[Missouri S&T Chancellor] Cheryl Schrader has accomplished so much in the position,” Steelman said. “It’s been nothing short of remarkable to see the growth of that school both as an institution of learning and as a research facility which can ultimately produce individuals and businesses that are high-paying and high-tech.”
As the UM System looks to pad its endowment over the years, Steelman stressed that individuals campuses across the state needed to feel “more apart of the system,” of the university and focus less on short-term construction of buildings and more on long-term donations to the endowment.
“It needs to be explained that the best thing for the university’s long-term health is to focus on getting funds into the endowment,” Steelman said. “That’s something we can work harder at explaining.”
Collin Reischman was the Managing Editor for The Missouri Times, and a graduate of Webster University with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism.