Continuing his push to build backing for stronger financial support from the state, University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe said Friday that residents, industry and political leaders have to work together to make a convincing appeal.
“We’ve got to stop playing the blame game,” Wolfe told members of the UM Board of Curators in Columbia. “We’ve got to stop pointing fingers. We’ve got to stop looking in the rear-view mirror and start looking through the windshield.”
Since he became president of the four-campus system three years ago, Wolfe – a graduate of the Columbia campus – has been traveling the state on what he calls his “Show-Me Value” tour, making the case that a successful Missouri and a successful university go hand in hand.
Meeting with students, civic leaders and business executives, as well as writing newspaper opinion pieces and using social media, Wolfe said he has been getting his message across to as many people as he can using whatever methods he can.
“We have more reach now than we have ever had before,” he said.
One measure of that success, Wolfe added, was raising matching money from private sources for projects that he said had brought 1,200 jobs to the state. Still, he said, industry often says it is too hard to work with the university in fields like research and intellectual property.
Making such partnerships easier, Wolfe said, will go a long way toward pursuing and perfecting the argument that will benefit everyone: A stronger University of Missouri will mean a better Missouri.
“It is important that we be transparent to our political leaders,” he said. “It is important that we be accountable for the money invested in us.”
Citing Missouri’s failure to fund public schools fully at all levels, Wolfe specifically tried to dispel some of the common explanations for the shortfall.
Is Missouri too conservative? He said that states that are ranked as being even more conservative fund education at a higher level.
Are Missouri’s taxes too low? Wolfe said that the state is about in the middle of the pack in that benchmark, and states with even lower levels of taxes also provide more support for schools.
“We really have some fundamental challenges in the state of Missouri,” he said, adding: “What do we want Missouri to be known for, and how will we change?”
Wolfe cited a recent Post-Dispatch editorial, written after he visited with writers there, that he said had resulted in both criticism and support.
It talked about Missouri being involved in what he called “a race to the bottom” – a phrase he said he had borrowed from Donald Cupps, now chairman of the board of curators. To make sure the state doesn’t end up with the dubious distinction of winning that race, he said that everyone who wants to see progress has to help foster a sense of urgency.
“Complacency is the enemy of urgency,” he said. “The reason why complacency exists it that you have perceived success or arrogance or you need to cling to the status quo, and we need to be sensitive to that.”
But, he added, to make sure Missourians see education as the key to a more prosperous future, there needs to be a strong coalition of all parties who can benefit.
“There’s a lot of pent-up anger and emotion that’s coming out,” Wolfe said. “We’ve got to capitalize on it, but capitalize on it in a positive way.”
Wolfe's comments came one day after curators approved, on a vote of 6-1, a 0.8 percent increase in tuition and fees for the coming school year. The vote came amid concern expressed by members of the board that students are shouldering too much of the cost of their education at a public university.
In his remarks, Wolfe said he would join the heads of other public colleges and universities to go before lawmakers next week and ask for increases in support for higher education. To be successful, he added, they will have to make a case that higher appropriations will help everyone.
“We’re changing people’s lives in a positive way,” Wolfe said. “ We have the opportunity, as taxpayers and citizens of the state, to be more productive, more accountable, more visible.
“Education is the fulcrum of all of the things that we do.”
Year of the student
In his first meeting as chairman of the board, Cupps – an attorney from Cassville – said the theme of his tenure will be “Year of the Student.” Saying that he had learned a lot from Tracy Mulderig of UMSL, the non-voting student representative on the board, he said he wants to focus on making progress in five separate areas and asked all four campuses to provide progress reports during the year on possible improvements.
First, he focused on advisement to help students succeed. He noted that the university has already begun an initiative to improve student retention, but more could be done with improved advice.
Second is enhanced learning, not only in the classroom and the laboratory but increasingly online as well. “We need to make sure that the online learning, along with our in-person instruction, is the best that it can be.”
Cupps summarized his third point in these words: “eight semesters.” Though parents and students sometimes joke about their collegiate five years plan, he said the university needs to make sure it does away with roadblocks or bottlenecks that keep students from graduating in four years.
“For a lot of families,” he said, “it’s not a joking matter. If you’re from limited means, an extra semester or two semesters of college increases your debt and increases the burden on your family.”
Fourth, Cupps said students need to have access to what he called “mental health first aid,” the ability to get help to cope with what can be an overwhelming adjustment to college that can lead to illness or worse.
Finally, he piggybacked on Wolfe’s continued press for campus safety by saying all students should have a quick way to use a smart phone or other mobile device to get advice or help with issues of violence or personal safety. “They should have this at their fingertips,” Cupps said. “They shouldn’t have to go anywhere else.”
Praising Mulderig’s input on the issues, Cupps said: “If anyone ever questions the importance of the student representative, they should meet Tracy.”
About using her ideas as the basis of his own, he added: “One attribute of a good lawyer is being able to take others’ work and claim it as your own – and bill for it.”
St. Louis Public Radio is a unit of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Follow Dale Singer on Twitter: @Dalesinger