Northwest regents OK moving ahead on merger talks

Monday, April 14, 2003

MARYVILLE, Mo. -- The governing board of Northwest Missouri State University endorsed Sunday moving ahead with legislation merging the institution into the University of Missouri system.

With about one month left in the legislative session, Northwest's board of regents authorized president Dean Hubbard to coordinate lobbying efforts with the University of Missouri and to "negotiate the terms and conditions for an orderly transfer and transition agreement."

The University of Missouri Board of Curators is scheduled to meet Wednesday to discuss similar formal endorsement of the negotiations and legislation. The system's president, Elson Floyd, has already traveled to Maryville to share a stage with Hubbard to discuss the proposed union.

But the state representative who represents Northwest said his alma mater is "moving way too fast" without answering persistent questions about the merger plans, which only surfaced within the last couple of weeks.

Rep. Brad Lager, R-Maryville, said Sunday those questions include how much tuition could increase at Northwest -- which charges about $25 per credit hour less than the university system -- and whether Northwest will ratchet up admission standards.

A 1997 graduate, Lager said the university is the largest employer in his district and that more restrictive admission policies or tuition increases that could "drive away or keep out even 1,000 students would have a very detrimental economic impact."

Other symbolic but significant issues surfaced during a four-hour public meeting by the board of regents to hear from school officials, faculty and students.

Most frequently mentioned: whether to keep or dump the word Northwest from the new institution's name. The university system's other campuses -- St. Louis, Kansas City, Columbia and Rolla -- are known by their city names.

Hubbard said he already heard rumblings of complaint from other UM campuses about special treatment being given to Northwest as symbolized by the regional name.

The board of regents voted to have its lobbyist let lawmakers know it prefers to have Northwest as part of the name -- but the board president, James D. Johnson of Agency, said that preference "shouldn't be a deal-killer."

Avoiding suspicion

Tom Vansaghi, Northwest's lobbyist, said the merger would be easier to sell with a name similar to the other campuses.

"We need to look, sound, smell and feel like the other schools in the system" to avoid legislative suspicion, he said.

Resistance from Lager could derail the accelerated drive by leaders of both institutions to link up amid tough state financial times.

Lager said he preferred to consider a stand-alone merger bill next year rather than combining the institutions through an amendment to other legislation.

The lawmaker said he wants a broader regional panel created from northwest Missouri to have a final say on the details of the proposed merger, "to acknowledge the important role this institution has in our region."

Lager said he had been repeatedly asked to explain the rush. "I cannot explain it. I think they are moving way too fast. It may be a great idea, but it should be thoroughly studied," he said.

Either board could back out if they didn't ultimately like the merger details.

Hubbard endorsed the merger, saying it would add doctoral programs and institutional strength to Northwest, which has about 6,500 students -- roughly one-tenth of the UM system's total enrollment.

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