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UM president wants to spread the word about system's worth

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 1, 2013 - As he finishes his first year in office, the president of the University of Missouri says the four-campus system is getting bigger, better and more efficient.

Now, Tim Wolfe says, it’s time to make sure Missourians know what a great school and a great value the university is.

In his first state of the university speech, given at the Board of Curators meeting in Kansas City Friday morning, Wolfe recounted the events of the past 12 months since he took his post in mid-February 2012. Sometimes sounding like the business executive he was before entering higher education, he talked in terms of strategic planning and priorities, operational excellence and synchronization.

But he also emphasized, “I have never learned so much in a single year. And I can also tell you that throughout this state, the University of Missouri’s four campuses hold a special place in the hearts of many Missourians.”

(All quotes are from his text as prepared and released on the university’s website, along with accompanying slides.)

At the same time, Wolfe added, it is time for the university to make a renewed push to let the citizens of the state know just how much the system contributes to the well-being of Missouri. He noted the growing skepticism about the value of a college degree, given the combination of high tuition and a difficult labor market.

“Some people will tell you that a college education doesn’t pay off like it used to,” Wolfe said. “They will tell you higher education is too expensive and that students graduate with debt they’ll never get out from under. The founder of PayPal has gone on the record saying, simply, ‘Too many kids go to college.’

“I’m here today to tell you they are wrong. And, I’m interested in engaging in these conversations and setting the record straight.”

Keeping with the state’s long-time slogan, Wolfe said his second year will feature a “Show Me Value” campaign, letting state residents know “whether you’re looking at lifetime earnings, health or opportunity that there is no better avenue to success than attending one of our four campuses.”

Wolfe’s message for the curators – and presumably for the state – is that the four-campus university system, which was created 50 years ago, continues to grow, with a total enrollment of more than 75,000 students. Over the past 12 years, he said, the system has added 19,000 students – the equivalent of a whole additional campus that would be the third largest in the state.

During that time, he added, the University of Missouri has accounted for nearly 90 percent of the growth in full-time undergraduate enrollment at the state’s four-year institutions.

Along with that quantity has come greater quality, Wolfe said. Nearly one-third of the system’s first-time freshmen graduated in the top 10 of their high school class, with an average ACT score of 25.6, which is more than four points above the national average.

And the university has tried to make those students' education affordable. The 1.7 percent tuition increase adopted for the coming school year means the system has raised tuition by an average of 2.3 percent each year for the past five years. That figure compared with a 6 percent increase by comparable schools in surrounding states, the university said.

To meet the fiscal challenges that all of higher education faces, Wolfe said the system has realized more than $80 million in administrative efficiencies.

He reiterated the system’s six priorities that he announced last year – strategic planning, attracting and retaining the best people, expanding research and economic development, operational excellence, innovative instruction and effective communication of the system’s value and importance.

In terms of instruction, he noted that in the past two years, the university has developed more than 125 online courses and logged a 20 percent increase in student credit hours and the number of students taking at least one course completely online. A recent survey found only a 10 percent increase in that category nationwide.

One topic Wolfe did not touch on was the controversy over the University of Missouri Press. Last May, he released a statement saying that the press did not fit into any of the system’s six major focus areas, so it would be phased out beginning in 2013.

The decision was met with a chorus of complaints, and in the following months the plan was modified several times. In the end, the press was transferred to the Columbia campus, and its editor was rehired, so it will continue to operate.

Concluding his remarks, Wolfe stressed the importance of financial responsibility and planning to make every dollar count.

“In an era of diminishing resources,” hee said, “there has never been a more important time for us to progress together, to be nimble in the face of challenges, to be accountable and to take measured risks.

“The bottom line is the university will continue its historic role as the state’s premier land-grant university, but the entire system must be poised to take strategic risks and move forward faster than ever before.”

Wolfe also noted the addition of three newly confirmed members to the Board of Curators: Ann Covington of Columbia, a former judge on the Missouri Supreme Court; John Phillips of Kansas City; and Michael Ponder of Cape Girardeau, who also serves on the Missouri Board of Education.

Their appointments brings the board up to its full complement of nine for the first time in many months.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.