MU credit-card culture boosts status quo spending

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

By Tony Messenger

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- A retired professor and former University of Missouri-Columbia administrative type sat down with me for coffee the other day and lamented the culture of spending that pervades our nation's institutions of higher education.

MU isn't all that unique, he says, based on his long career with several Midwestern universities, both private and public. Decades of fiefdom building, protecting the status quo and keeping up with the Joneses have pushed universities to a credit-card mentality of spend now, seek more money later.

Exhibit A, my friend says, is the proliferation of professional conferences -- job fairs, he calls them -- that every professor, dean or provost must attend no matter how far-flung the location or what the cost entails. Back in the day, he recalls, young professionals were responsible for their own career development, but now trips from Vegas to Paris are put on the university tab without the blink of an eye.

Exhibit B is the audit unveiled by reporters for The Kansas City Star that shows the university is loose with employee credit cards, sometimes issuing more cards than a department even requests, frequently with ridiculously high limits.

Exhibit C is the now well-publicized incentive plan at MU's veterinary college that has paid six-figure bonuses to some already well-paid researchers, including two who have administrative responsibilities in the department. That this comes at a time when the state is slashing higher education budgets hasn't done much for veterinary school morale. The MU Faculty Council properly noted the obvious conflict that arises when professors who make financial decisions about a department are able to shift resources to help line their own pockets.

Officials at Bureaucratic U, however, not only disagreed, they practically encouraged the practice while adding yet another oversight committee to the others they routinely ignore.

The problem at places like MU, my friend and I agreed, is that more time is spent protecting the status quo than looking at ways to fix the culture that just assumes things have always been this way. The vet school incentive program is a perfect example. Rather than apply common sense to the situation, the university is going on the defensive.

Case in point? Days after the Tribune filed an open records request to find out how much was being paid in bonuses to select employees, the university's News Bureau put out a pre-emptive news release praising the program for generating $2.1 million in revenue for the institution. While mentioning that incentives were available to employees, the news release didn't mention that those were in some cases six-figure amounts. Coincidence? Is it also coincidence that in a year in which the top three employees in the athletic department -- three of the highest-paid state workers in Missouri -- received big raises, the department is cutting lower-level staff members? State Sen. Jim Mathewson of Sedalia criticized the university's approach to protecting its status quo earlier this legislative session after his attempt to bring MU's health-insurance system under the state's umbrella failed. Specifically, he ripped MU for paying a contract lobbyist around $40,000 just to kill his bill.

"I wave the white flag to the University of Missouri," Mathewson said at the time. "And I say, 'Well, you hired a lobbyist, you spent the money, you used state money to send out faxes and e-mails to every employee in the system. And you beat me. I give up. You're too big. You've got too much money. I can't defend myself against you, or my idea, though I still think it was the right plan.'"

While plenty of folks thought Mathewson's bill was a mistake, there's no doubt the senator's point about fighting the well-monied machine that is Bureaucratic U is shared by others in the state.

He directed much of his ire to UM system vice president Ken Hutchison, who, again perhaps coincidentally, received a $17,000-plus raise around the time the legislative session began.

Ask why Hutchison is getting a raise while other funding is being cut, and you'll hear a familiar refrain. Like Quin Snyder, Mike Alden and the administrators in the incentive program at the vet school, he received another offer and money was found to retain him.

My friend figures at least some of these job offers are coming from the expensive conferences and meetings we send our jet-setting higher education folks to at taxpayer expense.

It's a good racket. Pay now; pay later.

Wish I had a credit card with that kind of limit.

Tony Messenger is the city editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune.

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