Missouri's Money Problem

As cuts pile up, new University of Missouri System president seeks to set the stage for a new direction.

June 5, 2017
 
U of Missouri System President Mun Choi

Faculty leaders reacted with a mix of caution and optimism Friday after University of Missouri System President Mun Choi outlined a series of substantial budget reductions, employee cuts and reallocations across the system’s four campuses, many of which will significantly impact the struggling flagship in Columbia.

Cuts and layoffs have been expected for weeks because of decreases in state funding for the system and declining enrollment. But Choi, who started as president in March, is seeking to go farther, reallocating some funding to try to reposition the system for the future. For example, new faculty members will be hired in some key areas, even as some faculty positions are cut.

The goal is to make tough decisions now in order to serve students and protect faculty research, Choi said.

“We could have just sat back, complained about the budget cut, complained about the enrollment drop,” Choi said during a meeting in which he described the changes. “But the message from the community was resounding in that they wanted us to move forward to make bold decisions that strengthened the university.”

The system is facing an 8 percent reduction in state appropriations -- $35.9 million​ -- in the 2018 fiscal year. Costs that cannot be avoided, such as building maintenance, are also expected to rise by $15 million. Tuition revenue across the system is expected to drop by $11 million -- although that number obscures that fact that two campuses are expected to post tuition gains offset by a decline at the flagship in Columbia of $10 million and a decline at the University of Missouri St. Louis of $5.6 million.

Systemwide, 474 administration, faculty and staff positions are being eliminated. About half of those jobs are currently vacant, Choi said. It is difficult for the system to make any changes to its budget without affecting employees because about 80 percent of its budget is made up of personnel costs.

The cuts are set to hit the University of Missouri Columbia hardest. It will lose 307 positions, 135 of which are faculty positions.

The University of Missouri Kansas City will lose 51 positions, 29 of them faculty. Missouri University of Science and Technology will lose 50 positions but no faculty spots. The University of Missouri St. Louis will lose 30 positions, 16 of them faculty.

Meanwhile, the system offices will lose 36 positions, including 16 administrators. The cuts include closing the system’s federal relations offices in Washington and restructuring its government relations efforts at the state level.

Choi is calling for another $39 million in strategic investments. Redirecting how money is spent will enable the system to hire 212 faculty members across the system -- 161 in Columbia, 25 in Kansas City, 19 in St. Louis and seven at Missouri University of Science and Technology.

The budget announcement comes after weeks of planning. Choi earlier this year told campus leaders to draw up plans for budget cuts of between 8 percent and 12 percent to compensate for state funding cuts and falling enrollment.

Enrollment has been hit particularly hard in Columbia. The flagship campus is expecting its smallest freshman class in two decades this fall -- 4,000, down by about 14 percent year over year and by about a third from 2015. Its overall enrollment is projected to decline 7.4 percent. University leaders have blamed the enrollment decline on a decreasing number of high school graduates and on fallout from turmoil in the fall of 2015, when students protested what they saw as a culture of racism on the Columbia campus, leading to the eventual resignation of then president Tim Wolfe and then Columbia chancellor R. Bowen Loftin.

Plans call for finding efficiencies and eliminating duplications across the system. For instance, three campuses use the Canvas learning management system and one uses Blackboard, Choi said. They could all be placed on the same system. Plans also call for cutting some programs and looking at consolidations between campus academic programs. For instance, plans call for cuts to theater programming at Kansas City and closing some centers and institutes at the flagship campus.

“We can’t be all things to all people,” Choi said. “We have, across the four campuses, 400 majors. We duplicate majors from campus to campus. In some cases we may say if you want to study this particular discipline, you may want to consider this campus as opposed to coming to our campus here. We cannot afford to have programs in which we don’t provide the highest level of student success.”

Faculty members will need to be consulted for such programmatic changes to be considered legitimate, said Ben Trachtenberg, an associate professor of law and the chair of the University of Missouri Columbia Faculty Council.

Trachtenberg was not surprised by the details released Friday, although he expressed regret that some employees were losing their jobs. The administration has not declared financial exigency, and no tenured or tenured-track faculty members are being laid off, he said. Some tenured and tenure-track faculty jobs are not being filled after retirements or departures for other jobs, though.

There is reason for optimism that the current budget plans can lead to long-term planning for the future after years of turnover in leadership positions, Trachtenberg said.

“For a very long time, people at this university who have been paying attention have complained that we have done a lot of budgeting decisions almost by accident,” he said. “I would say the university cannot avoid making values-based decisions about what we want to do if we’re going to go in the right direction. Otherwise we’re going to go in the direction of happenstance.”

Some faculty members have pointed out that the Columbia campus is in line for a larger share of cuts than other campuses, Trachtenberg said. But he pointed out that the state funding cuts have been spread evenly across the system, that Columbia is by far the largest institution in the system and that it is experiencing a steep drop in enrollment.

“It’s going to be hard to justify saying to the other campus in the system -- as much as I’m a Mizzou partisan -- because Mizzou has an enrollment decline, we’re going to fill up a sack of money in Kansas City and bring it to Columbia,” he said.

It’s unpleasant to go through cuts, said Gerald Wyckoff, a professor of molecular biology and biochemistry who chairs the Faculty Senate at the University of Missouri Kansas City. But he pointed out that the campus has a mission to serve the students and its region.

“The declining state support for that mission is challenging,” Wyckoff said. “But we have to help the students be the people that they want to be and help the region grow, and that’s the idea. Nobody’s happy about it, and there’s certainly cuts that people would prefer not to see. But we’ve got to take the opportunity to make the changes we need.”

Wyckoff was concerned about the possibility of eliminating programs at Kansas City. Some students won’t be able to travel for a particular program, meaning they might not be served, he said.

Across the state, the University of Missouri St. Louis has been working to realign its budget for a year and a half, said Pamela Stuerke, a professor of accounting who is the chair of the university’s Faculty Senate and University Assembly.

“I’m hopeful,” Stuerke said. “We’re not so much seeing this as cuts as we’re seeing it as a realignment and re-envisioning.”

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