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President Timothy Wolfe outlines challenges to UM System

University of Missouri website

On the job since February, University of Missouri System President Timothy Wolfe leads an institution with four campuses, more than 74,000 students, and over 13,000 employees. He joined Don Marsh on St. Louis on the Air today from the Columbia studios of KBIA. You can hear their entire conversation in the St. Louis on the Air archives, but here's a quick look at some of the conversation.

On what he’s learned so far

The biggest thing I’ve learned in the last couple of months is that the scope and the scale of the University of Missouri System is quite extraordinary. Some specifics: our extension services touch one million Missourians on an annual basis. We have a location in every single one of our 114 counties in the state of Missouri.  A lot of people don’t know that. Also, what we’re doing from a research standpoint on our four great campuses is mind boggling and it’s life changing--the innovation from health, life science, animal science, plant science—that research is spawning new companies, introducing new intellectual property, as well as doing some significant things in curing some very, very bad diseases. Those are some things that, unfortunately, don’t get the recognition and the awareness that we need in the state of Missouri.  So that’s been the most surprising things I’ve experienced in the last two months.

On rising costs for higher education

Anything that we can do to help keep down the costs for students so that he or she can enjoy the academic experience, we’re going to try to do. Recently, the Board of Curators approved a three percent tuition increase, year over year, for in-state students, which is much lower than our peer group across the country. So we’ve kept tuition expenses down, and that’s in the face of declining state support…we are balancing it not on the backs of students and parents, but we’re trying to become more efficient as well. What we’re trying to do is get them through school at the right pace so that when they exit school, we’ll continue to have student loans as low as we possibly can. Currently, we’re below the industry average of around $24,000-25,000 of average student loan debt that an undergraduate experiences. We’re below that average. We’d like to stay below that average.  We’d like to do everything that we possibly can to give students a great opportunity to compete for a job when they get out of school, but also as they compete for that job, they’re not saddled with a significant student loan debt that is unmanageable. Obviously, anything that President Obama or anybody else can do to keep that student loan down by maintaining current interest rates, from a higher education standpoint, we’d certainly support.

On possible budget cuts to higher education

The Governor has a very difficult job in terms of a tax revenue base that’s certainly challenged and the rising cost of health care that’s sucking more and more of that general revenue towards the incremental expense of health care puts a real challenge on a lot of the other agencies…. so it’s not an easy job. We’re looking at a reduction of 7.8% in state funding on a year-over-year basis. Our challenge is to become more efficient, as well as continue the effectiveness of the quality education that we deliver, and the research and economic development services that are the four pillars of our mission statement. With the 7.8% reduction, that’s about a $30 million decrease in state funding.  We do have plans to cover that. Unfortunately, because we’re such a people intensive organization, it will affect maximum 200 jobs. For sure, unfortunately, we will have a reduction in workforce with this 7.8% reduction. 

That being said, the House passed a budget that took higher education that took higher education from a 7.8% reduction to flat year-over-year. It came out of the Senate Appropriations Committee that they too confirmed the House’s recommendation of taking higher educatino to a decrease to flat funding.Tonight it’s going to the floor for debate, discussion, the entire budget…we hope that the Senate concludes with the same result that the House did, which would be $30 million back to the University of Missouri System budget…. I can tell you that the $30 million would be put to very important very needy uses like, we’ve got some buildings that are in such disrepair that we’ve got to fix some things to continue to have the strong academic environment that we have. We’ve got some departments that need more faculty. We’ve got faculty that are significantly underpaid against the industry norm. We’ve got some really challenging things to work on and that $30 million would be put towards reinforcing the strategies that we’re about.

On the University of Missouri System’s biggest short term challenge

The biggest challenge short term is getting as much as we possibly can into the budget and balancing the budget so that we have the appropriate investments in our short term, tactical needs, as well as the appropriate investments in our long term strategic needs. 

On the biggest long term challenge

We need to understand that we’re going to be more and more dependent on alternative sources of revenue than what we’ve experienced in the past with state and federal funding. That’s just a reality. We all have our realities that we have to deal with and we’re dealing with it. We have to put new strategies in place that respond to that new reality and attract the necessary resources to fund the growth and keep the momentum that we have in our four campuses.

On the move to the SEC

There was a lot of great research, due diligence that was done….I believe they looked at all things, not just financial. I believe they looked at the quality of the schools in the SEC vs. the quality of the schools in the Big XXII. The SEC looked at the University of Missouri not just for its athletic accomplishments, but our academic excellence as well. I think that simplifying this decision to being just financial is not really giving the process justice.

On spending on sports in the UM system being in line with the system’s mission

We support our athletic departments at our four institutions because we think it serves a valuable purpose. It’s part of the experience that you have at the institution of your choice. Some institutions don’t have the degree or scale of athletics that others do because it’s not important. With our institutions and the value proposition that we try to put out to the marketplace, those athletic departments and teams are important. It also gives us brand recognition on a national scale when your teams are competitive. There are people all across the country that all of a sudden start wearing your shirts, your jerseys, and start bragging about your particular team. There is a great deal of advertising, exposure, and awareness that comes from the excellence in your athletic endeavors that goes to the value of the school and the interest of the students. So there is a lot of residual value in continuing to invest in athletics appropriately as we go forward. 

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