Prioritizing academic resources at MU

The genesis of this is that Clyde Bentley sent out an e-mail to jour faculty asking us for points to present to President Forsee at the meeting tomorrow morning. So I cobbled this together and fired back at him. And the Jour-Faculty list.

Anyhow, I didn’t really mean for my e-mail to Clyde to be public for everyone. But now it is, so what the heck. Here’s what I sent him:

Clyde: The problem we’re facing is not one that’s just tied to Mizzou. We’re all facing what my uncle calls “the four horsemen of the higher education apocalypse”: increased demand; diminished capacity; economic and fiscal problems; and demands for accountability.

The problem is that there’s not money forthcoming from either state appropriations or from tuition revenue. That means that the most likely source for “new” resources is to reallocate existing resources.

On a campus like ours, academic programs are the major cost centers. And until recently, they were permitted to grow without regard to their relative worth.

MU, with its nearly 300 majors, is worse at this than other campuses. But the fundamental problem is that we’ve tried to be all things to all people.

We have not defined a narrow mission in which we can excel. Instead, we’ve accepted flat funding and across the board cuts, which will lead to every program becoming mediocre.

The way out of this trap is not to ask for more money. It ain’t coming. It’s to reallocate existing resources from weaker to stronger programs.

The challenge our education leaders face is to prioritize resources in a rigorous, academically responsible way. That will require us to revisit the goals of a research university. We need to rethink the role and mission of the university, and we have to permit only those activities that need to be done and that the university and our faculty do well.

The clear problem is that it requires slaying sacred cows. It is politically volatile to point out (for example) that we have an engineering school at MU that is redundant with one in Rolla; or a medical school both at MU and UMKC; etc. Especially with new teaching technologies, surely we can reduce redundancies among programs. Or drop those altogether that we don’t do well in.

It’s worth pointing out that the prioritization needs to take place among programs, not departments. The distinction I’d draw is that a program is any collection of activities that combines resources — for example, the campus facilities office. It may be desirable for MU to be a botanical garden, or it may not.

The faculty role in this needs to advocate for a complete strategic rethinking of the university. It will require them to set aside egos and decide what we do well and what we don’t do well. And it will require them — in some cases — to accept damage to their vested interests in the service of the university.

Disclosure/disclaimer: Many of the ideas in this post are taken from conversations with my uncle, Robert C. Dickeson. He’s been a leader in educational policy for decades, and wrote a book way back in 1999 that covers a lot of what’s in this post. So at this point I’m not sure what of my ideas are entirely mine and which are his, but that’s the root source of a lot of this.


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