Making significant budget cuts at a state university is no easy task. The process Southeast Missouri State University has just completed took months. It involved -- or at least offered opportunities for involvement -- everyone affiliated with the university: regents, administration, faculty, staff, students, alumni and community.
The result of this effort was a substantial restructuring, the likes of which rarely occurs in institutions where even minor changes in one department can involve many months of committees, recommendations and reviews. While not everyone is happy with the changes at Southeast, both the process and the outcome have left the university strengthened in many ways that will hold it in good stead in the years ahead.
The changes at Southeast are not casual one-time shifts that will necessarily be erased by any future positive changes in the financial fortunes of the school or of the state, upon which the university depends for a significant portion of funding. These are changes that will have an impact for years to come.
The trends of public education are shifting at every level, from kindergarten through post-graduate programs in higher education. Many of these changes are prompted by financial concerns that aren't likely to evaporate in the short term -- and perhaps not in the long term either. The Missouri Legislature, like so many other state legislatures pressed to spread available revenue across so many demands for state programs, has held for years to a course of reducing state aid for higher education. The recent downturn in the national economy only emphasized and hastened that process.
Throughout its examination of programs and activities that merit funding, the university tried to balance its academic mission with other needs outside the classroom. In the minds of some, the debate boiled down to an academics-versus-athletics discourse. It was much more than that.
Similar debates occur in local school districts as well: Which is more important -- good teachers or a strong athletics program and a prize-winning marching band? The answer, which should be the guiding beacon for all such debates, is simple: Both.
Savvy educators look for ways to provide the best opportunities possible at the most reasonable cost to taxpayers. Missouri schools have a long and enviable history of doing just that.
Southeast Missouri State University has shown, once again, that strength can be found in cuts, as painful as they are.