Ex-curator says bill undercuts universities

Friday, February 9, 2007

Jackson lawyer John Lichtenegger added a new layer of opposition Thursday to provisions of a higher education bill pending in the Missouri Senate.

The bill, which would recognize the legality of selling the MOHELA student loan portfolio to fund campus buildings, also takes aim at tuition costs, measures of academic achievement, disputes between colleges and student financial aid. The provision on disputes is aimed at the pending lawsuit between Southeast Missouri State University and Three Rivers Community College over learning centers in the Bootheel.

Lichtenegger, a former member of the University of Missouri Board of Curators, spoke Thursday in Columbia, Mo., to members of the University of Missouri-Columbia Faculty Council. His message, backed up by a bipartisan group of 13 former curators, including Paul T. Combs of Kennett, Mo., took aim at what Lichtenegger called unconstitutional and unwelcome intrusion into university affairs.

And while regional schools such as Southeast don't enjoy the same constitutional protections as the University of Missouri, Lichtenegger said in an interview, they should share his concerns about academic freedom and the independence of governing bodies from legislative interference.

"All the colleges and universities in Missouri have never known any restriction placed on tuition and fees," Lichtenegger said.

In the past, he said, the legislature has left colleges and universities alone to pursue academics and research as they saw fit. While there have been directives on what courses to offer, for example, "there has never been an attempt to say you can't do something," he said.

Committee struggle

The bill, now pending in the Senate, struggled to get out of committee, with the first version failing on a 3-7 vote when Democrats opposed to restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research joined pro-life Republicans who argue that the restrictions aren't enforceable.

Only when the package of buildings to be funded by the MOHELA money was pared back to exclude buildings where stem-cell research could possibly occur did the bill win approval on a party-line 6-4 vote.

Under the provisions of the deal between MOHELA and the Missouri Development Finance Board, embryonic stem-cell research is banned in buildings constructed with the money. At a meeting of the University of Missouri Board of Curators last Friday, the curators voted unanimously to comply with the requirements.

MOHELA, or the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority, buys student loans from banks and collects payments and interest after students leave school. The authority plans to sell $1 billion in loans in its portfolio to help generate $335 million for college buildings, including the River Campus project at Southeast Missouri State University.

In the remarks prepared for his speech Thursday, Lichtenegger called the research restrictions unconstitutional and "an unprecedented usurpation of the powers of the curators to govern the university."

Under the bill's tuition provisions, colleges and universities would be barred from increasing tuition by more than the general rate of inflation. A violation could cost a school up to 5 percent of its state appropriation.

'Exclusive province'

In recent years, most public universities in Missouri increased tuition by far more than inflation as a response to dramatic reductions in state appropriations. Lichtenegger noted that the bill doesn't promise state aid will increase to cover rising costs.

"The setting of tuition and fees has been the exclusive province of the board of curators and the board of regents at our public universities," Lichtenegger said. "Never in the history of the state university have the curators been asked to cede their exclusive power to set tuition and fees until last year and this year."

Lichtenegger, a Republican, was appointed a curator in 1985 and held the seat until 1995.

UM system spokesman Scott Charton declined to respond to Lichtenegger's remarks. "We appreciate the service our former curators gave to the university while they were serving their terms as curators."

Southeast president Dr. Ken Dobbins did not return a call seeking comment. He has called for modification of the tuition caps to recognize that some schools, such as Southeast, have lower than average tuition but has not opposed the cap.

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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