University boards embrace merger

Saturday, February 14, 2004

MARYVILLE, Mo. -- The University of Missouri would absorb Northwest Missouri State University under a plan embraced Friday by the governing boards of both institutions.

The next stop is the statehouse, where merger advocates hope for approval from the legislature and Gov. Bob Holden but acknowledge there is no certainty of action before lawmakers adjourn in May.

The merger would mean "we could do things that could never be done otherwise for the students in this region," said Northwest's president, Dean Hubbard.

The new institution would be called the University of Missouri-Northwest, adding a fifth major outpost to the system.

Education analysts say it's unprecedented for a thriving public university to voluntarily merge with a strong, separate system. But Missouri's tightened state financial support for schools led Hubbard last spring to approach the larger system about uniting.

"What we want to do as part of the system is draw on the resources of the University of Missouri system," Hubbard told the joint meeting. He cited as examples bringing in single lectures or entire class sequences through interactive video from other campuses in the system, to enhance course offerings such as foreign language instruction.

The highest degree offered by Northwest is a masters. The merger would allow creation or expansion of some system doctoral offerings on campus. Hubbard pledged this could be done without duplicating programs.

Northwest's Board of Regents met for the first time Friday with the University of Missouri Board of Curators to sign two documents their negotiators have been working on for months.

One is a 15-point memorandum laying out details of the proposed union, including the new institution's name; assuring the continuing work of Northwest's private fund-raising organization; and specifying that Northwest's tuition and admission standards wouldn't be raised automatically.

But the Board of Curators would have authority to eventually change both tuition and standards, which are lower at Northwest than in the system. According to the criteria of the state's Coordinating Board for Higher Education, the University of Missouri system is "selective" in its admissions; Northwest is "moderately selective."

The curators voted unanimously for the merger. There was one dissenting vote among Northwest's regents: Lydia Hurst of Tarkio said she wanted more specifics in the memo about the financial relationship between the institutions.

"This is a multimillion-dollar deal and I think it was a rushed process, and I would like to see it discussed in more detail and a little longer," Hurst said in an interview. "It's not that I don't see advantages, but I'd rather be cautious."

The second document signed Friday is a joint resolution asking the Legislature and Holden to authorize the marriage of the system and Northwest, which started as a regional teachers college almost a century ago.

State Sen. David Klindt, R-Bethany, told The Associated Press he is preparing to introduce legislation to put the merger before his colleagues. The deadline for filing Senate bills is March 1.

State Rep. Brad Lager, R-Maryville and a graduate of Northwest, attended the meeting and told reporters afterward that the proposed merger could have many benefits. But Lager declined to say flatly whether he supports the merger -- and acknowledged that lack of enthusiastic backing from Northwest's hometown lawmaker could kill it.

"I have no intention of killing it," Lager said. But the freshman lawmaker said he wants to know more about the proposed relationship between Northwest and the larger system.

"What we have to do is not only educate ourselves on this, but our colleagues" in the Legislature," Lager said.

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